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Things are going well, it’s been another eventful week over here and Damascus still never ceases to surprise me with new experiences.
This week I got to see some more of the native wildlife, other than the humongous cockroaches that is! I was walking back to my apartment one night and suddenly something came fluttering by, almost hitting my head and quickly flying off round the corner. As quickly as it flew away it came back and this time I was able to get a better look at the creature. I could now see it was in fact a small black bat, who had decided to take a low surveillance of the street. It reminded me of the bats you could often see circling the Umayyad Mosque’s minarets at night.
Then another brush with the local wildlife came in my own apartment, this time when the power was out at night and I could hardly see anything properly without using my phone as a torch. I was by my fridge, about to grab something to eat, when all of a sudden something seemed to squirm quickly across the wall. Immediately I jumped, thinking it was some kind of horrific centipede or something like that crawling in the dark. After collecting myself I took a closer look using my phone and to my relief it was only a cute little lizard who had decided to stop by and say hello. The next day I saw another lizard, this time outdoors on top of a rubbish heap. The second lizard was significantly bigger, like the kind you’d only normally see in cages at the zoo or on the Discovery Channel. I stopped to take a look and the lizard perked up and tilted its head, staring straight at me from the side with its big round eye. It quickly scurried off and disappeared, camouflaged amongst the sand and dirt.
Like I predicted in my previous email, the power has indeed started to cut out again as usual. I knew it wouldn’t last. A couple of times it’s even cut out in the internet café, which is never much fun when you are in the middle of writing an email.
Right now is an especially important time in the Islamic Calendar; we are now in the month of Ramadan. It will last for one full lunar cycle, I think until the 19th of September, which in the Hijri Calendar is the 30th of Ramadan 1430. Things are much the same where I live, however, with only a small number of food shops closed, since the area is populated mainly by Christians. It is interesting to observe the traditions found during the month of Ramadan. One such tradition, which is perhaps difficult to connect with the religious meaning of Ramadan, is the soap opera craze that hits the televisions and most families. New soap opera seasons start at the beginning of Ramadan, including the popular Damascene series, “Bab al-Hara”, and many families gather at home in front of the television to follow the exciting new episodes. There are of course many beliefs about the meaning of Ramadan, such as the belief that it is supposed to be a reminder of the fact that everything we receive is ultimately from God. That would include our families, so perhaps spending time together as a family, even if it be in front of the telly, may be a reminder of this fact. I suppose the closest equivalent I can think of in Western culture is the tradition of Christmas movies that come out especially during the Christmas season, including ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘The Great Escape’ and other such films. Of course, to be closer to Ramadan, you would have to watch the films without any popcorn or candy canes!
As always, I’m keeping myself busy with Arabic practice, but especially these last couple days as I work towards completing my last year abroad essay, which I have to send to Durham University by email as part of the assessment for this year. In total we have to write three year abroad essays in Arabic, on various topics we can choose from, as well as collect various pieces of information corresponding to the essays, all of which are gathered in a year abroad portfolio. Upon arrival at Durham we will have a short Arabic oral examination, which will include giving a presentation on our year abroad portfolio and answering any questions. The examination then comprises 25% of our final year double module in Arabic. For this essay I’m writing about a visit I made to the main museum in the city, ‘The National Museum of Damascus’. It was really interesting to see the ancient artifacts collected from both Syria and the rest of the Middle East, including a tablet from the Ugarit, which is claimed to have inscribed on it the first ever alphabet. During my visit I was given a private tour by one of the museum workers and even though it was difficult to understand his Arabic, he did let me in to restricted parts of the museum, which was nice of him – of course, not without a small tip for his trouble.
Today is day 284 in Damascus and I’m happy to report things are going well. I’m still enjoying my new apartment and getting to know the area better. The electricity has been unusually good recently – with no power cuts for a few days now. Knowing Damascus, however, it probably won’t last and soon enough there will be power cuts again – and probably when the weather’s hottest!
Teaching is going well. Every week I have new students joining my classes. So far, since my arrival in Syria this summer, I have been teaching thirty different students, including two private students, one of whom I teach three times a week. So teaching is keeping me busy, but I’m also fitting in some Arabic – in fact, one of my students is an Arabic teacher and has been giving me private lessons, which I’ve found to be very useful.
I’m still chatting with locals and the shopkeepers are getting to know me quite well. Each of them have gotten used to my usual order or purchase – for example, I walked into one store once and, before I could say anything, the shopkeeper informed me they were all out of Mountain Dew! (Guess whose fault that was!) Also once, in another shop, I was buying some cool-aid flavouring and usually I get the lemon flavour but this time I decided I’d go for a bit of variety and try the ‘tutti fruity’ flavour. As I went to the counter to pay, the shopkeeper said, “Not lemon today?” and as I paid I looked back at the cool-aid boxes and realised the shop keeper had ordered a new box of lemon flavoured cool-aid, just for me – so the next time I made sure to get some lemon cool-aid and the shopkeeper was over the moon with delight!
It’s great how close all the shops are. I particularly love how I can go downstairs, walk to the corner of my apartment building and right there is fresh bread for sale, still piping hot from the oven. Sometimes I like to improvise myself a hot dog using the fresh bread, tomato ketchup, mustard, and some Heinz sweet relish that I managed to find at ‘Sham City Centre’ mall (the only mall in Damascus), where they stock all kinds of western foods, including British and American products.
I’ve noticed it’s quite a noisy area, too, particularly during the day. Somewhere next door, it sounds like someone is either simultaneously playing ping-pong and air-hockey or is hammering something over and over again. Then from the street, apart from the consistent honking and random bangs that sound scaringly like gunshots, there’s often this beggar who sounds like she is right outside my window, asking for money through some kind of incomprehensible Arabic chant that sounds more like a wailing cat than anything else.
Today, Friday, is my day off so I have been taking time to relax. This morning I attended the same church again with my colleagues. This time there was a huge BBQ afterwards, hosted by one of the members of the congregation. The host was an American working in Syria for an oil company associated with BP, so naturally his house was ridiculously amazing, with a large backyard and outdoor swimming pool. The food was absolutely delicious and there was lots of it, with hired cooks manning the BBQ as well preparing freshly squeezed juices of all kinds. I discovered at the BBQ that one of the members of the congregation, an American fellow called Chuck, whom I was sharing the same table with, is here as an ambassador and is actually one of the main advisors to the US President on matters in the Middle East and, more specifically, Syria. He just so happens to be a Christian and upon arrival in Syria, apparently just asked for the closest Anglican church and found this one, which is called ‘All Saints International Community Church’.
After a long afternoon nap, I decided to relax in front of the telly and enjoy one of my latest hobbies; watching one of my favourite channels, called ‘Zee Aflaam’, which is non-stop, 24/7 Bollywood films! The thing I like most about the channel, apart from the catchy singing and dancing, is the fact that there is no English, so I am forced to read the Arabic subtitles in order to know what’s going on, which is fantastic practice for my language.
Speaking of television, this one’s especially for Dad: I happened to be watching some Arabic music videos and guess what was in one of them… a Citroen DS! I think the singer’s name is Nivine and in her music video she’s singing from the back of a shiny blue DS! I will have to try and find the video for you.
I’ve been here just over two weeks now and things seem to be going well. I have settled back in and have already finished my first full week of teaching. As before, I teach six days a week with Fridays off. At the moment I teach three levels; beginners, intermediate and advanced. For the first two we use a textbook series called ‘Interchange’, produced by Cambridge University Press. Although the series is from England, it teaches American-English, so my students are exposed to both American-English and British-English. The advanced level is mainly practice in conversation and for that class I produce the material on each subject. I try to keep the topics as interesting as possible, so as to motivate the students to participate and share their own opinions. It’s a very laid back and enjoyable class.
I am of course continuing my own studies and am getting plenty of language practice. Over the last week I’ve managed to make several friends in my local neighbourhood and they’ve been more than happy to help me with my Arabic. For example, sometimes I sit and chat with a shopkeeper at this household goods store just seconds away from my apartment. I occasionally help him with English and he teaches me colloquial Arabic. It’s great for my vocabulary because every time a customer comes in I learn the name of whatever they’re looking for. I particularly enjoy the shopkeeper’s commentary on the customers after they have left. For example, he told me he finds the women customers the most demanding and picky, always wanting everything in the same matching colour. Being a household goods store, naturally most of his customers are women, shopping for dishes or clothes racks or cleaning supplies…etc., since in Syrian society this is generally the woman’s domain.
I’m happy to find that my Arabic is still improving and the more I learn the greater the enjoyment I get out of having a conversation in Arabic, especially when I manage to get through a conversation without using any English or having to ask the person to repeat themselves. Breaking the language barrier is something I genuinely enjoy and is one of the main reasons why I hope to pursue a career in translation and interpreting. It’s not easy and requires a lot of work, but I find it really rewarding when I manage to slip in an item of vocabulary, which I had just learnt, into a conversation and it’s followed by a positive response. I also quite enjoy surprising Arabs who I hear talking about me in the third person when they don’t realise I can understand them.
Not surprisingly, the weather over here has only gotten hotter. It doesn’t help that every day the city loses power for about four hours in the afternoon and then sometimes again for an hour or so in the evening. It’s especially bad when the only thing keeping you cool is a fan positioned no more than one foot away and then the power cuts – yeesh! (Or as the Arabs would say; “ya salaam!” يا سلام!).
This morning I went to a church service with two of my colleagues from Durham. I’m not quite sure what denomination it was exactly, but someone said it was an Anglican church. The services are held in English since most of the congregation is from outside of Syria, from places like Malaysia, Korea, Africa and America. The pastor and his family are missionaries based here from Australia. So it is quite an international mix to say the least. The service was not much different from the ones at my usual church, having lots of contemporary hymns, a band and lots of layman participation in the service. After the service there was a Bible study on the subject of life and death and then we were invited to a meal at the pastor’s house, where we had lots of Asian food prepared by members of the congregation. It was very delicious, especially since I can’t even remember the last time I had Chinese food.
Even though I’ve been in Syria for about nine months now, I still see and experience something new everyday. Often the experience lasts only some moments, but leaves a lasting impression, like seeing someone riding a horse down the road, in and amongst all the traffic, as if it was just another means of transport. Or, for example, witnessing a child urinating in the middle of the sidewalk with no one thinking anything of it. Something that I found particularly memorable happened just yesterday. I was walking to my lesson in Jaramana, through the blazing heat, when all of a sudden, out of what seemed like nowhere, came this heavenly music, which soared above all the other city sounds. It was coming from a loudspeaker attached to the roof of a hearse and was proclaiming the passing away of a loved one. The music was not Eastern, but rather sounded like a piece from a requiem, with a sweet chorus behind a powerful symphonic orchestra. As I watched the convoy go by I couldn’t help but feel moved by this beautiful yet tragic music set against the dirty and dusty urban backdrop of a city filled with poverty. With the sound fading I walked on to class with eyes red, partly due to the sand in my eyes, but mainly because of the overwhelming emotion. It’s moments like these that leave the most impression.
I now have just about one week left in Syria before I come home for the summer. First I shall be staying at Brian’s place in London before my flight to Pittsburgh on June 10th.
On Sunday I taught my final lessons at the two institutes. My students decided to throw a small party to show their appreciation and it was very nice to get such positive feedback from the students. All of them are eagerly awaiting my return in the summer and I look forward to continuing teaching at both institutes from around July 17th – October 1st (about two and a half months).
My plan is to find a nice apartment for myself in the Damascus suburb, Jaramana, where I first lived at the beginning of my stay in Syria and where most of my students are based. It is a particularly interesting part of Damascus because of the wide variety of people living there, which include Muslims (Sunni, Shiite and Alawy), Christians (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox) and Druze (or al-MouwaHidoun), from various parts of Syria, particularly from the south-east area of Asweide’, and there are also many refugees from Palestine and Iraq.
It has definitely been an interesting 246 days or so to say the least. Sometimes it has been very hard, being so far from home and adjusting to what feels like a different world. But other times I have had the time of my life. I have felt myself change over the last nine months, learning a lot of new skills, becoming more street smart, and learning more about how to deal with the real world – outside of the “Durham bubble”.
At the beginning of our academic year here we were all thrown in the deep end. I arrived at the end of August last year in the blazing summer sun, with just one change of clothes, my laptop, some books and a week’s hotel reservation at the “Damascus Hostel”. It was then up to us to rent a place, trying not to get scammed with tourist prices, and all of that in sketchy Arabic. Not forgetting having to deal with adjusting to Damascus food and enduring the “Damascus Stomach” multiple times! It has been a year of firsts – like renting my first apartment and at the same time paying the bills with wages earned from my first proper job (the paper-round I did as a teenager doesn’t count!).
Since arriving I have become intimately familiar with Damascus, like a second home (or third even?) and have become especially familiar with the bus routes throughout the city, having spent an average of two hours a day in the bus travelling to and from the university or work. I have met a wide variety of people, from different cultural and religious backgrounds and have learned a great deal about the Eastern mindset. I feel that there is still a tremendous amount to learn from the East and I look forward to continuing my Persian and Arabic, as well as continuing my Islamic Studies.
The other day I overheard a very pleasant piece of Arabic exchange and once again learned a little bit more about the Arab culture. I was in a shop and overheard the shop keeper ask another man, who had been placing various items to buy on the shop counter, if there was anything else that he wished (in Arabic: “gheyro?”), and the man’s response was simply “salaamtak”, which means “your peace/health”. I thought that was so cool. When do you ever hear a shopkeeper in the England or America ask if a person wants anything else and hear the person answer “only your good health”? They also have the same custom here for when someone is leaving the house, for example, and they ask the people in the house as they leave; “do you need anything?” and the response is “only your good health and peace.”
Last Friday I visited the Muslim family with which I have become very good friends over the period of my stay here, and one of the sons, called SaliH (which means “valid, or good in every way” and is the name of one of the children of Adam and Eve according to the Koran) drove me to the top of the highest mountain adjacent to Damascus, called “Qasiyoon Mountain” and showed me the amazing view over the whole city. It seemed like a fitting way to say goodbye to Damascus until the summer. (Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera since I didn’t know beforehand that we would be visiting the mountain. Perhaps I shall go again in the summer and take some photos for you.)
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!
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!