Category Archives: Syria

Wild street cats in Damascus, Syria

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Year Abroad in Syria – Day #228

08/05/09

Day 228

Things are going well over here in Syria. My language classes at Damascus University finished a couple of weeks ago and now I’m keeping up my Arabic by practicing with the locals. After finishing the final exam my class and I celebrated by having a party at my place. I went to pick up some wine for the party and as I was searching, to my surprise, I stumbled across a wine made in Syria, but with a picture of Durham cathedral on the label – it was like a sign – I just had to pick that one and my classmates from Durham agreed it was a very fitting choice!

Before our term finished we had a very interesting visit; about a dozen MPs from the House of Commons visited the university and were taken on a tour of the Arabic language institute. They were given a presentation on its history and then afterwards joined the students for some refreshments and asked us about our experience at the language institute. They were visiting the university primarily to maintain good relations, but also to discuss the possibility of establishing some kind of exchange program for Arab students wishing to study in Britain.

I’m still very busy with teaching and still thoroughly enjoying the experience. I currently teach at two separate institutes, both of which would like me to return in the summer and continue teaching for them. I will of course be coming home this summer, for the reunion in June, but plan to return to Syria for at least another two and a half months before the next academic year begins at Durham University in October.

I’m also still giving the occasional private English lessons and one of my students, Sari Al-Ash, is a professional violinist. He is a member of the National Orchestra for Arabic Music (NOAM) and decided to invite me to one of his concerts at the Syrian Opera House; the most prestigious concert venue in Syria. It turned out that not only was he performing in the orchestra, but also another of my students was singing in the choral section. So there I was, at the opera in Syria, watching two of my students perform! It was a magnificent arrangement of music, which included a beautiful and innovative mix of both Eastern and Western styles.

While we are on our year abroad we have to write three Arabic essays for Durham University. So I have decided to write one of my essays on the performance, which will include interviews from the two performing students and possibly even one from the conductor himself!

Year Abroad in Syria – Day #239

24/04/09

Day 239

For Easter Sunday I decided to visit the Christian quarter of the Old City, called Bab Touma, and join in the celebrations there. After all of the churches in the area had finished their ten o’clock services, they each joined together to form one long parade through the city streets. There were marching bands, flag bearers and little children dressed up as baby chicks! The drummers were drumming as loudly as they possibly could, as if they wanted the whole city to hear, and you could just about hear the brass music under the beats. They were carrying all kinds of flags, representing the various church groups and at the front was the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic. In the middle of each church group the youth were holding up and parading their own Easter scene, with giant paper-maché chicks and coloured eggs. I was somewhat surprised to find a lack of any real religious symbols being carried in the crowds.

After the celebrations, I met with a large group from the Protestant church I attend and we had a meal out at one of my favourite restaurants in the Old City, called Bab al-Hara. I love the food there because they have a great mix of both Eastern and Western-style meals available.

Being Sunday, it was still a working day for the rest of Damascus and so I still had to teach a class that evening. I didn’t mind, however, as I always really enjoy teaching and this time was no exception. This particular class was in Jaramana, where there is a large population of Druze, which is an off-shoot of Islam. My class, being mostly Druze, were very curious about Easter and so the lesson turned out to be an introduction to the whole Easter story, starting right from the very beginning with Adam and Eve, all the way to the resurrection of Christ. As they heard it for the first time, I could tell that each one had been touched very deeply by the story.

It also happened to be one of the students’ birthdays and so we finished the lesson with another celebration, singing happy birthday in Arabic then English, eating lots of Arab salad, called fatoush, and finally having lots of chocolate cake!

As I am sure you are aware, Easter is celebrated on different dates in various places of the world. So here in Syria it was actually celebrated twice, once on the Western date (April 12th) and again on the Eastern date, one week later – so over here you can have Easter two times a year! It wasn’t until the second time round that I finally managed to eat a chocolate egg – even if it was just a small “Kinder Surprise”- sized one. It’s pretty much impossible to find any Easter eggs where I live, outside of the Christian quarter.

So all in all, I feel I had a really great Easter all the way over here in Damascus, close to where it all originally happened!

Easter Parade in Damascus, Syria 2009

Damascus from my rooftop!

Year Abroad in Syria – Day #209

25/03/09

Day 209

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!

Year Abroad in Syria – Day #143

18/01/09

Day 143

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.