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Category Archives: Syria
I thought it was about time I wrote and updated you on things over here in the Middle East.
Things are going very well. This week’s our mid-term vacation so I’m enjoying the change of pace and sleeping-in a bit more. From next Monday we only have four weeks left of Arabic instruction at the University of Damascus. Then it’s up to us to continue learning Arabic at home and on the streets. Personally, I much prefer an hour spent chatting in Arabic on the streets to one hour sat in a classroom picking at grammar. I’ll then be staying in Damascus until June 3rd, when I fly first to England and then shortly after to America for the big reunion, to which I am thoroughly looking forward.
Although it’s our vacation I’m still very busy as I’m now teaching English here. I just finished my fifth week of teaching at a small private institute situated in Jaramana, the suburb of Damascus where I first lived for a month. I’m really enjoying it and it’s also very good money, especially when you factor in the poor state of the economy these days. I teach four groups, from beginners to advanced. In the most advanced group, two of my students are actually English teachers themselves, who, as native Syrians, wish to improve their English pronunciation and iron out the occasional difficulties they have in grammar. My students at the institute range in age from about twenty to around forty years old.
I teach regular hours at the institute, but I also supplement them with the occasional private lesson, either at my apartment or at the home of the student. My private students range from primary school to university, so I tutor quite a variety of levels, each with their own challenges.
Also since last I wrote, I’ve moved into a new apartment (surprise, surprise!), bringing the grand total number of apartments I have lived in so far in Damascus to a whopping four apartments! This time I’m living on my own since the two Arabs I used to live with could not afford to keep living with me. I don’t mind too much, however, as it’s nice to have my own place for a change. My new apartment’s a very good size for one person, is fully furnished and includes one bedroom with a king-size bed, a kitchen, a bathroom, a large living room and a balcony. I’ve had to work a lot, however, on cleaning the house, especially the kitchen, which looked like it had never been cleaned even once by the former tenants!
I’m now living in an area called “86”, which is next to the area called, Mezeh Gabel, where my last apartment was situated. The area I live in is also nicknamed the “illegal houses” because in the past most of the apartment buildings were built without permission from the government. Any further building construction is now carefully controlled and there are police check points (with the usual AK47’s) to monitor the movement of any building materials into the area.
I’m happy to report that my Arabic is still improving with each week and I’ve found that with every week that passes here, things become that much easier as I get more and more used to life in the Middle East. I’ve also found that I can now distinguish the Kurdish language from Arabic and can even understand the occasional word from the Persian I have learned, since Kurdish is almost a dialect of Persian. To me, Kurdish sounds like a mix of Arabic, Persian and Russian, resulting in what is to me a rather ugly sounding language. Perhaps if I learned more of the language my opinion would change. After all, when I first started learning Arabic I thought it wasn’t the prettiest sounding language! However, the more I hear and learn, the more endearing some of the sounds become and sometimes I think it’s almost a shame that English does not make use of some of the sounds found in Arabic!
That’s about everything for now. I hope everyone is doing well in their respective parts of the world and I hope to speak to you all again soon.
Peace be upon you!
Things are going very well over here. This term our timetable has changed; now we only have class four days a week (instead of five) and only three hours on Thursdays (instead of four), so I have been enjoying a long weekend!
We have a new teacher as well, this time a man, Rami al-Farah, who is a post-grad student, so is relatively young and very enthusiastic. So far we have all found ourselves preferring his style of instruction, even though it includes a lot more work! Also, the class this term is smaller, just eight of us, all of whom are from Durham University except for one guy, who was here last term too, from St. Andrews University. He is quite a character – he was telling us the other day how he traveled back home for Christmas by train! All the way from Syria to Scotland! It was a five day journey and apparently was cheaper than flying!
I have settled into my new apartment (still in the Mezeh Gabel area close to the university) and am enjoying the luxury of having internet at home for sending and receiving email. Unfortunately Skype is not so great on our dial-up connection and so occasionally I may still use the internet cafés for that or find a local restaurant with WiFi.
My new apartment has only two bedrooms this time, but one of them is particularly large and so is big enough for my two housemates, with even room to spare for a third person. My bedroom has a fantastic king-size bed, but unfortunately no heating unit installed, so for the time being, while it is still very cold at night, I am sleeping in our large living room, which has an excellent air conditioning/heating unit.
Again we have a large balcony, but unfortunately have lost the panoramic view over the city. This time our balcony is facing towards the mountains to the West. I still enjoy, however, relaxing outside and observing Damascus city-life below; passers-by, people quarrelling, families gathered for tea, and cats fighting on the roof tops.
Since we have a landline in our house, naturally we get the occasional phone call, which means speaking over the phone in Arabic! The first call I answered didn’t go so well – I was a little intimidated by the prospect of speaking Arabic over the phone, but by the second time I felt more prepared and so it was a lot easier. It really is a very cool feeling knowing you have just had a phone conversation entirely in Arabic!
Anyway, I shall say good-bye. I think I might go and try out Mezeh’s famous pizza! Hope everyone is doing well.
Today we moved into our new apartment and so far no major problems! I now have a phone line and so can use dial-up internet at home. I have tested Skype only briefly and it appears that a dial-up connection works but is not very clear. I shall keep experimenting with it.
I don’t know exactly what needs to be dialled to get through on the phone from abroad, so I am afraid you will have to Google that to find out what it is from your respective countries.
I thought I would write a quick email to let everyone know that I have arrived safely in Damascus without any problems.
In fact, things are going very well, as my housemates have informed me that they have found an even better apartment for a cheaper price and in a better location. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but I shall keep you updated. The main highlight of the new apartment is that apparently it already has a phone line installed, which would enable us to use the internet at home and more cheaply than at an internet cafe. My housemates are going to show me the place tomorrow. From what I have heard so far, it sounds almost too good to be true, and knowing Damascus, it probably is, so I am not going to get my hopes up. In any case I shall let you know how it goes.
Today is my 100th day in Damascus! So I thought an appropriate way to mark the occasion would be to write and update you on my stay.
The term at my college has finished now so I am enjoying the Christmas holidays and not having to get up so early in the morning anymore. Since I haven’t had to go to class these past few days, I have been able to spend more time with my Arab housemates, William and Simon, who have been helping me with my Arabic vocabulary learning.
After being here for what feels like longer than 100 days, I find myself taking many things in Damascus for granted. Occasionally, if I am working on my computer or watching a film in the comfort of my living room, I forget for a moment that I am in the Middle East. I am soon reminded, however, when in the distance, over the noise of the TV and the traffic outside and the neighbours’ music, I can hear, only ever so slightly from a minaret far away, this tone, almost eerie in nature, that rises above all the other noise, like an angel soaring over the city, singing in pure, seamless Arabic; “God is most great.” For a moment, not only are you reminded that you are in the Middle East, but that, like the tone rising above all else, God is above everything and everywhere and He is the one in control. It is quite humbling really and for a moment life is put into its proper perspective. I particularly enjoy walking out onto my balcony during the call and looking over the city, thinking to myself how surreal it feels to be here in Damascus, in a different culture and so far away.
I have started to take a lot of things for granted now. Men standing around with AK7’s, trash lying in piles along the streets and the smell that comes with it, wild cats fighting and the noise they make as you try to get to sleep. Men shouting or tapping against gas cans from the streets advertising what they are selling, Arabic subtitles on all the films, Arabic writing everywhere, the rats that live in the entranceway to our apartment building, sometimes no drinking water in our apartment, women wearing the hijab, men wearing 70’s fashion, slow internet, crowded minibuses, crazy maniac near-miss driving, incessant honking of horns, kids throwing small rocks at each other, kids trying to sell you a packet of chewing-gum, soldiers walking about in scruffy uniform, getting stared at because you are Caucasian and surprising them with Arabic.
The other day, when I was in a minibus, I noticed another strange tradition in Syria. Some of the drivers here let the fingernail on their small finger grow out and don’t cut it. I thought this was rather odd (as well as pretty disgusting) and asked a local about it and apparently it is a way for the man to show that his job does not involve manual labour and that this custom is somewhat of a class indicator. It is quite ironic really, because he still has to drive the bus 12 hours a day.
Well, it will soon be Christmas and I look forward to seeing most of you this holiday, when I can tell you more about my adventures in this strange place!
I’m very proud to report that today I carried out my duty as an American citizen and voted!
Of course, it meant I had to go into town to the US embassy. It was quite a daunting experience. Outside of the embassy were dozens of Syrian policemen in full riot gear, standing at the ready in case of any disturbances. The US embassy is close to a number of other embassies and each have their own private security outside their own building, so all around, as if in some kind of stand-off, were men standing with AK47’s. It was also the first time I had seen the US embassy here and out of all the embassies in Damascus, the US embassy is by far the most obviously protected and secure, looking almost like a mini prison with barbed wire all about it. I finally found the entrance to the embassy and outside was a long queue of Syrians waiting to get in. All I had to do, however, was show the guard my US passport and I was taken straight in without any hassle. In fact, the whole process was really very easy and inside the embassy the staff were all very friendly and as a US citizen I found I was given first priority. The embassy was full of Syrians, applying for various consular services, and it appeared to be quite a novelty for the Syrians to see an actual American citizen visiting the embassy.
I had quite a funny experience at one point; as I was filling in some forms, I heard this thick American accent coming from behind me – I turned around and to my surprise the voice was coming from a woman who was wearing the full black Muslim covering or “niqaab” (with only her eyes showing) and talking with her child. That was rather unexpected.
Within about half an hour I had cast my ballot and felt very pleased to have done my bit!
I hope everyone else has a happy election day too!
The weather here has started to get pretty cold, especially in the evenings and for the first time I’m having to wear my jacket outside. It’s also been raining a little more, but is still very occasional. During class the other day we could hear thunder outside and because it was so unexpected my first reaction was that it was another explosion of some kind, but soon realised it was nothing to worry about. After all, in my experience so far, you never know with Damascus!
Speaking of explosions, this time round it was the Americans who were causing some noise in Syria, having crossed the border from Iraq. Some Syrians were so upset that they even called it an act of American terrorism! On Thursday there were Syrians holding protests outside of the US embassy here in Damascus. Of course, I stayed well clear of the area, but could still see the affect it was having on the traffic heading in that direction.
Last week a new Persian language course began at the college and so I decided to join the class and pick up my Persian studies from where I had left off. The class runs in the evenings, so doesn’t clash with my Arabic, and is three times a week, for two and a half hours at a time. This class is quite different to what I was used to in Durham, however, as the class here is taught all in Arabic, since the students in the class are all either Arab or Turkish. I am finding though that it is actually very useful, not only for my Persian but also my Arabic. There are some exercises that we have to do, for example, that require us to translate from Arabic into Persian, in which case I have to first translate from Arabic into English and then into Persian! I’m absolutely loving the class so far and am finding the Persian to be quite a welcome breath of fresh air from all the Arabic I am doing.
Tomorrow I am having internet installed in my apartment, so hopefully it should be a little easier to keep in touch and you might see me on Skype a little more.
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.