Friday, May 05, 2006

farewell for now

[written May 3]

My time in Syria is drawing to a close; I suppose this calls for some final thoughts. I've been here just over 8 months, and like many things in life, my stay here in retrospect seems so long and so short at the same time. It's been great fun, living here, and I've learned a lot from the many people I've met. I've grown to love this place and the people here, imperfections included. My feeling of sadness at leaving my life here is tempered by the knowledge that I will return, inshallah.

Is this the last post? Despite my not being here in Syria anymore, I don't suppose there's any reason I can't keep posting thoughts or recollections about my time here. We'll see how things turn out. I can't emphasize enough the vast number of topics and ideas I've jotted down that never ended up getting blogged. For those interested in more Syria reading matter, go check out Syria Planet, a great site that collects blogs by syrians and blogs about Syria.

As a final topic, a few words about generalizations and surprises. Part of my original intention in coming here to Syria was to learn about what lies behind that very vague yet very sinister picture of Syria that reaches the United States. Even with that intention of discovery in place from the beginning, I have been discovering surprising things about the people I meet, up until the very last moment. I'm also surprised by the fact that I continue to be surprised, because of the impression of homogeneity here. I mean that to a certain extent, there's a shared commonality of opinion and behavior here in Syria -- more than I've found, for instance, in my travels in the U.S.

There I go, making a big fat generalization, even as I've just said I'm aiming to get past the generalizations. Despite their potential to be used to misunderstand and misjudge, I think we (as humans) need to generalize to some degree in order to understand the world around us. I guess the trick is remembering that a generalization is just that; it has its limits. I hate to be getting all preachy here, but I've had to face a lot of these thoughts as I've been navigating through life and meeting people here.

Back to my acknowledged generalization about Syrians all acting the same. On this same topic, check out The Script, a post by some other blogging foreigner. I can fully confirm his account: 75% of the time I sit down in a taxi or start a conversation with someone on the street, I am asked exactly the same set of questions and I face almost identical opinions. Now, a big part of this is surely that I am a foreigner: Syrians are aware that their reputation is not-so-hot in the so-called "West", so many make every effort to present a good front, knowing that their words have the potential to reach a wider audience.

I don't mean that people need to lie to make their country seem like a nice place -- Syria is, in my book at least, a very nice place. For example, folks often point out how much more secure Syria is than the United States, and they're not exaggerating: one feels absolutely comfortable walking across all of Damascus at 2 am, an impossibility in any U.S. city. But they (these generalized Syrians) avoid discussion of any of the problems of their city and country.

Another potential contributing factor to the greater homogeneity of opinion here is the education system. All through schooling here in Syria, from elementary school through college, learning is about memorization, rather than about applying knowledge or analyzing. I've been helping some 11th graders with their English; for them to pass their test, they must memorize their English book from cover to cover. They don't have to be able to speak a word of English or write a sentence from their own brains, just know every text and every exercise in the book. This method pervades through the university level, where lectures are typed up, sold, memorized, and then regurgitated for the exams. It would be fair to say that this pervasive attitude does not encourage independent thinking, and since this is not a society big on reading, most people get news and opinions from TV and radio. I think these things help to contribute to a seemingly shared opinion.

OK, now at last back to the point: Surprises.

From these apparent similarities, a foreigner might come away thinking that all Syrians are pretty much the same. Many do in fact get exactly that impression, and I have to admit that I am sometimes tempted to the same conclusion. For example, I now almost laugh when I hear the question, "Which is better, Syria or America?", and I swear to you that I am asked it with 9 out of 10 taxi drivers. It seems like people want me to confirm either their conviction that Syria is great with the one answer, or the stereotype that Americans are pompous assholes with the other. I always turn it back on them, "Better in terms of what?" and try to get the conversation moving on to a more productive place.

The fact is, however, that this impression of homogeneity is based on surface encounters. I've been lucky enough to get enough of this Arabic language to make a number of relationships that reach deeper. With all the people with whom I've reached this more honest level of communication, I've found something unique and distinguishing about them -- often to the point of being deeply surprised.

One feature of Damascene culture that I have found especially pervasive is the obsession with surface appearances. How you look really matters in terms of how you are judged by peers and strangers, so people work hard to look good. One example of this is with mobile phones: it's a common phenomenon for someone with a modest salary to spend it all on a top-of-the-line phone -- not to make calls, simply to be seen with that phone. I, for one, was laughed at, yes, literally laughed at by the attendant at a clothing store when I pulled out my year-and-a-half-old model.

This sort of materialism is of course nothing unique to Syria, but it feels to me especially widespread here. It was not until my last month here that I found good friends who, like me, think that this obsession with appearances is a waste of our precious time. As I got to know these friends I realized how much I had given up hope of finding folks who consciously rejected a piece of the dominant culture in which they grew up. It was a pleasant surprise, not so much because I think parts of the culture deserve rejecting, but rather because I was finding opinions consciously outside of the mainstream -- and that doesn't happen too often here. It reminded me how much the generalizations we must make have their limits.

I also hope that during my stay here I've contributed to the breaking up of some Syrians' generalizations. Generalizations about U.S. citizens, thanks to "Friends" and the rather shoddy rotation of films on American movie sattelite stations, are detailed and often exaggerated. Usually during a taxi-conversation or the like, when I'm asked (or told) about how some certain thing is in America, I end up saying, "Well, it really depends..." because usually it does depend on who you're talking to or where you are. Also, as myself, with my own opinions and behaviors, I will add some new element to any given Syrian's personal generalization about foreigners or Americans. That's not special because it's me they're hearing about, it's special because in at least one way or another, I'll be different from those big fat generalizations people get from TV shows, movies, and news.

I suppose I can look at all of my time here through such a lens: constantly building and breaking down my own "generalizations" while helping others do the same. This way of thinking about communication could helpful in general, since our understanding of each other in the world is so dependent on our generalizations of each other. Yet something about it misses the point: in the best of my relationships here in Syria, we've been able to forget entirely that at some level we "represent" our respective nations. In these special cases, we've been able to connect on a deeper common level as friends -- even as we discuss the differences of opinion, culture or religion between us. Within that connection is a great feeling of success that makes it all feel worth it.

Don't think however, that I'm one of these simplistic optimists: "Let's have the whole world get along -- we're all the same underneath!" I've learned this year that such optimism for peace and harmony is foolish; the differences that separate us are often deep (not merely perceived surface differences) and sometimes extremely powerful forces for conflict. It has been frightening to encounter some of these differences in conversations here, yet I remain convinced that communication is the way through them.

I think that there is no greater challenge than admitting both the similarities and differences between us (the humans of the world). It's much easier to say either that "we're all the same" or that "we have nothing in common," attitudes both of which are wrong. After acknowledging such commonalities and differences, I admit there are times I don't know where to go from there. The path can seem impossible, but I remain convinced that we've got to keep trying it.

Well, it's been great. I'm going to miss my life here in Damascus and Syria so much -- more than I can express in words. Signing off for now,


Monday, April 03, 2006

Language Jollies, part II

I wrote my earlier post about language less than a month after I'd arrived in Syria; now, 6 months later (can it really have been that long?) here are some more thoughts about this complicated and beautiful thing called Arabic. This is a very long post, and I'm afraid parts of it (all of it?) may be a little too deep into technicalities to be of general appeal. Nevertheless, the language is the topic that I've been spending most of my time learning about and experiencing, and I've come to love it dearly. Here's a table of contents, to make it as easy as possible for you to skip around and read at your leisure. I'll say that parts I. and VI., with their direct examples of language, are perhaps the least technical, but the rest have some good anecdotes about my own experience with the language on the ground. I know that one is not supposed to blog in bulk like this -- but so it goes.

[By the way, this is not the big post I had mentioned before that was in the works. This one I've put together over the past 3 days. That other one's been shelved indefinitely. :]

I. Fun with Religious Expressions

II. Arabic's Multiple Identities

III. Spoken Arabic in Action

IV. Arabic as Often Taught

V. Dialects in Contact

VI. Jokes!


For months I've been meaning to do some writing about the use of religious expressions here. In general Arabic is so rich with all kinds of special expressions, religious and otherwise, but the religious ones play such a uniquely integral role in the everyday language of Syrians that I've wanted to write about them in particular.

[Transliteration? I'm not following any system, but trying to make it easy for non-Arabic speakers to read, as well as clear to Arabic speakers what I'm writing. For the `ein I use this [`] little thingy, and for the hamza I use this one ['] -- when I use it at all that is. I also am often writing qaaf as hamza. And if you don't speak Arabic, ignore those last sentences. Sorry.]

To start out this discussion, I first have to let loose a rant about one of my pettest peeves: allah does not mean Allah. The Arabic word allah is an alternative pronunciation of al-ilah, which means "The God" -- it does not mean "the Muslim god". This was the word used for God in Arabic long before Islam existed, and today it is the word used for God by the many Christians, Jews, members of other religions who speak Arabic. This means that whenever you see (for example) a newspaper caption reading: "Here protesters carry signs reading 'We put our trust in Allah.'" this is wrong. The sign actually says "We put out trust in God". Would you ever see see a caption telling about Spanish protesters "putting their trust in Dios"?

I think this is so important because I believe the persistence of this mistranslation helps contribute to the bad rep that Islam has in a lot of non-Muslim countries. It encourages the notion that Muslims worship some strange god, while in fact they worship the same God as Christians and Jews. The fact that it's the same God from the same line of religious traditions does not deny the differences between the religions, but at least it's a first step towards more understanding -- a commodity we're in need of.

I would also like to make a hypothesis that the pervasiveness of this phenomenon (writing Allah instead of translating it) stems not from a conspiracy against Muslims but instead from Muslims themselves living in non-Muslim countries. According to my knowledge, because the Arabic language has a special importance in the religion of Islam (the word of God was revealed in it) it is commendable to know it and to use it. So I imagine that converts to Islam who don't speak Arabic -- or children of Arab Muslim immigrants to other countries -- can manage to use at least allah and even while speaking their other language. Maybe from this usage it caught on. Any thoughts?

Now let's get to it: I've collected a bunch of everyday phrases, all of which have some religious element to them. Some are well-known outside the Arab-speaking world and some lesser-known -- but they are nowhere near the full count. Religious expressions are so common I feel like every week I'm learning a new one. Why are they so common? I heard that in Islam it is commendable to mention the name of God, and from this these expressions became so very popular.

For a foreigner coming from a place where one is not used to hearing the name of God mentioned at least a few times more in any regular brief conversation, this apparent constant presence of God can be a little intimidating at first. As I became aware of the pervasiveness of these expressions, I wondered: is everyone really religious, or have these expressions lost their original meaning? I've found both to be true; in general, religion pervades life much more thoroughly here than in the U.S., and yet a lot of times expressions seem to have lost their original meaning or changed it. There are no hard and fast rules. My teacher made the point that the meaning of any given expression really depends on who is saying it and who is hearing it.

Take for instance religious expressions in English. We have more than I ever realized before, but still nothing close to Arabic. "Oh my God!" is a phrase said all the time in English, but how many of those times is speaker really intending to implore his or her Lord in heaven? It depends on who it is, and on what situation they're saying it in. Here are some other ones in English for you English-speakers to ponder: "Jesus!" ; "God forbid!" ; "God knows how much/many!" ; "Thank God" ; "God bless you" [after a sneeze] ... just think for a second about how you do or don't use these, and what you actually mean or think about when you say them.

Here we go: Unless otherwise noted, these expressions are used by people of all religions in Syria -- Christians, Muslims, and even non-religious people. And remember, these are just a selection of the vast library.

- al-hamdulilah = "thank God" or "praise be to God"

Sometimes shortened to just hamdullah this might just be the most common of them all. You most often say it in response to the question "How are you?" The idea is that no matter how we are, we owe our thanks to God. You can either follow it with a descriptive adjective about how you are, or you can just leave it at the praise to God. This is especially convenient if you are not feeling so great and trying to follow that old saying, "If you can't say anything positive, don't say anything at all." It's a good reminder for me when I'm not in the greatest mood. It is also appropriate say this after someone sneezes.

- allah ma`ak = "may God be with you"

This is one of the "goodbye" phrases you can say in Arabic, used when addressing the person who's leaving. I mention it because I remember a scene in a Syrian TV series when a boss wanted a worker to leave his office and said allah ma`ak in such a particular tone of voice that it clearly meant nothing but "Get the hell out!" A reminder that context is so important for all of these.

- as-salaamu`alaykum = "may peace be upon you" followed by its response:

- w`alaykum as-salaam or the full response:

- w`alaykum as-salaam wrahmat allah wbarakaatoh = "may peace be upon you and the forgiveness of God and His blessings"

One friend described this to me as a greeting that is particularly Islamic, and in my experience I've found this to be true. It's usually used when you greet someone but can also be used when parting.

- in sha allah = "if God wills" "God willing"

It is bad form to say anything about events in the future without including this phrase, since we can be absolutely positive of nothing in the future. When people say it, they generally really mean it, and I've found this to be a very true phrase -- you never know, in fact, something might happen out of your control preventing you from meeting your friend at the cinema at 8 pm. It has even entered my language reflexes: for example I was telling my family (in English of course) the other day what day my plane was getting to JFK airport, and the in sha allah just slipped out right afterwards. On rare occasions, however, I have found people use this as a way of hiding the truth. Example: Me: "Hello, do you have this kind of batteries?" Guy: "Tomorrow in sha allah we'll have them." I discovered the next day that he actually meant: "I don't have any, but I don't want to have to tell you that."

- wallah = "by God" as in "I swear by God"

This is an extremely, extremely common word that we could also translate "really" as in "I really don't want to go" or "I swear" as in "I swear I'm telling the truth!" This is one (because of it commonness) that seems to be used without needing a thought to the original meaning.

- ballah = "by God"

This has two pretty distinct uses: It's often as a question: "Really?" "Are you serious?" to which the answer is always a hearty "wallah!" You can also use ballah meaning "please" as in "Let me off at the next bus stop, ballah"

- yaa rabb = "Oh Lord"

This one can commonly be used before undertaking some strenuous movement or activity -- perhaps just sitting down or getting out of a low chair. Also could be used as a complaint: "yaa rabb, why isn't the bus here yet!!"

- allah y`ateek al-`aafiye = "may God grant you health" with the response:

- allah y`aafeek that has pretty much the same meaning.

This is a very useful multi-purpose polite phrase: it can be used as a greeting, a farewell, or in place of "thank you" -- used especially with strangers, or with someone who has performed some kind of service for you.

- allah ywaff'ak = "may God grant you success"

- allah ytawwal `amrak = "may God lengthen your life"

I put these together since they're often used in similar contexts: when pleading or asking for something politely, or when thanking somebody for something. With most of these polite phrases you can turn them into insults with just the change of a few words. For example allah ytawwal `amrak can be altered to allah y'ata` `amrak = "may God cut short your life" Similarly: allah laa y`ateek al-`aafiye = "may God not grant you health" ; allah laa ywaff'ak = "may God not grant you success". These are pretty serious insults, I gather, so be careful, kids.

- allah ysaamhak = "may God forgive you"

I like this one because it has a very specific use: when you want to respond to something that someone else has said when you disapprove of it: "Don't say that!!" -- often in a half-joking way.

- na`eeman with the response of allah yan`am `alayk

Translation of this one is tricky. Literally, we could go with "The blessings of God!" and then "May God bless you!". True translation is even harder, since you say it only when someone has just taken a bath or shower, or just gotten a haircut or their beard trimmed. There really is no comparison in English. Once the father of one of my friends asked me what we said to each other when we got out of the shower -- he was amazed and could barely believe that we didn't say anything in particular -- to not do so would seem so rude to him.

- yaa muhammad = "Oh Muhammad!"

This is one of many religious phrases for expressing surprise or amazement at something. This one, is naturally only used by Muslims but Christians have one used the exact same way:

- yaa maryam = "Oh Mary!"

- salli `al-nabi = "pray on the prophet"

This is another one that is supposedly used specifically by Muslims. Used when you want to tell someone to slow down or calm down about something -- presumably stemming from actually telling someone to take a moment to pray. I make sure to mention this one since it has proved to me the true universality of all these expressions in the language: I once heard it used by a Syrian Christian. At the time we were staying at a mountain monastery (Deir Mar Musa) talking casually with a small group of people. I was the only one present who took notice of this, of a Christian using what is in origin a Muslim phrase. The Muslim friend of the Christian who had said the phrase did not blink an eye, let alone say, "Hey, that's my prophet you're talking about!"


I commented briefly in my earlier post dealing with language about Arabic's identity crisis between its various spoken and written forms. This truly is a fascinating issue that is impossible to avoid. Almost everyone (whether Arabs or students of Arabic) has a very strong opinion about it, and is most likely willing to discuss or argue this issue ad infinitum. Controversy: what fun!

The conventional wisdom for students of Arabic is that you must study formal arabic: either Fus-ha (the classical language of the holy Quran) or Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, the language of newspapers and satellite TV news stations). Considering that these two (Fus-ha and MSA) are separated by 14 centuries, they are remarkably close to each other; the big differences between them are changes in vocabulary and a few minor grammar differences. For the purposes of this, I'll call them both written Arabic, even though it is spoken for certain purposes (news broadcasts, speeches, sermons...).

The CW continues that one should venture into studying the spoken dialects of Arabic very cautiously, if at all. The reason stated for this is that there are significant differences between the Arabic spoken from region to region, so if you learn one dialect, you're limiting yourself to just a city or a region. Also, spoken Arabic can never be written (except in the cases of a few renegade fiction writers) so if you learn the spoken you are cutting yourself off from all reading and writing.

At some level, I think this Convential Wisdom is bunk, and here's why: Let's judge what it means to be fluent in a language by taking the example of an average, educated Arab person. This person grew up (whether in Libya, Aleppo, Yemen, or Baghdad) speaking Arabic, in the dialect of his or her particular region, of course. This young Arab most likely starts to hear written arabic spoken when he or she begins to attend religious services (whether Muslim, Christian, or whatever else) and then as soon as schooling begins and though the equivalent of High School, written Arabic is studied as a subject in school. Keep in mind that despite the essential importance of written arabic in so many aspects of life in any Arab country, no average educated person ever stops speaking the spoken Arabic that they grew up with, even if they mix in phrases from written or work at a job (newscaster) that requires them to speak written Arabic. The spoken is their language just as much as much as the written is.

Thus, judging from the reality on the ground and not from any ideology about how Arabic should be, basic fluency in Arabic means speaking one dialect and being able to read and write spoken Arabic, not just one or the other. If we take this for granted, then for foreigners comes the issue of which to study first, the written or spoken. I studied written Arabic for two years in college (without coming close to fluency but learning a lot) before coming here to Syria and focusing on the spoken language. More recently, I've gone back to working on written Arabic as well. The vast majority of people will tell you that you must study written Arabic first, otherwise the dialect you study will confuse you when you get to written. Although my previous studies in Arabic have helped me so much in learning the spoken, I'd be willing to question the Conventional Wisdom on this point as well, that maybe it could in fact be good to study spoken Arabic first. My proof for this is to look at how every Arab learns: first the spoken, then the written. Of course students' goals may specify what they want to study: for example, anyone interested in religion must study the Fus-ha branch of written Arabic.

It may sound silly to the uninitiated that I'm making such a big deal about the importance and value of the spoken language, but any Arab or student of Arabic will know that there are plenty of folks who consider spoken Arabic a worthless mess and not a language -- even as they speak it themselves. The name for the spoken language (`Aammiyya) means "slang" -- and that pretty much describes how the spoken language is considered around here. (N.B. that I'm purposefully not using that word to describe it.) The fact is, it is not slang. It (like every language) includes slang words and phrases, but those are a tiny minority of what the language contains. There remains, however, a very widespread attitude here that it's not really a language. For example, a friend of mine acknowledged the worth of learning the spoken Arabic, but when I told her some details about my lessons she said, "But `Aammiyya doesn't have grammar!" She thinks this because she's never studied that grammar, but of course it's there. Another friend told me (while speaking the spoken language) that he prefers Fus-ha and that he wishes all Arabs would speak it.

One funny result of this language duality in Arabic is people's perceptions of other languages. Many people think that British English is like Fus-ha and American English is like `Aammiyya -- Ha! In fact, being here and encountering this problem has made me thankful that my native language has no classical form. Sure we have some words we usually only write, and other words we usually only say, but there are no big differences in grammar, vocab, or usage. Also: because there's no pure English, there's less language snobbery than in Arabic. For instance, in English a novelist or a columnist can use an informal spoken-language phrase as an effective tool in their writing. In Arabic, it seems that what's most admirable in written style is what is farthest away from spoken expression -- even if that spoken expression is directly rooted in the classical Fus-ha Arabic. Ick. Down with snobbery.


The part of the conventional wisdom saying that the dialects are the slangy "language of the street" (and therefore only useful for gossiping, joking, and trash-talking with uneducated people), was so well drilled into my head that I was surprised and overjoyed to find it untrue. What has proved this to me most over the past months has been my work with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. I've been volunteering doing various activities with the Youth Volunteers group of this organization (which is the exact same thing as the Red Cross).

In December, the Red Crescent (al-Hilaal al-Ahmar) participated in a 96-hour nationwide disaster preparedness exercise. That means al-Hilaal had to have a corps of volunteers ready for all of those 96 hours during which various "disasters" would take place, calling on the services of the volunteers, testing their response time. I showed up at the branch office for the one shift I'd signed up for and suited up -- along with the 30 or so other youths -- into gray jumpsuits supplied to us. The night passed without getting called out to rescue any "victims" but it certainly was a quirky little experience. I talked a lot with people, played some cards, and we all ordered out for fatayer (those tasty little pie thingies) before going to sleep crowded onto some crunchy mattresses.

What most struck me about this evening -- and the reason I brought it up now -- was when we received our instructions about how the procedures worked and what we might be called to do. Naturally -- though perhaps surprisingly -- everything was spoken in spoken Arabic, but this was no joking or gossiping -- we were being instructed how to be better prepared to protect and save the lives of innocent victims. Also, these are not uneducated people we're talking about: Syrians aged between 18 and 30, nearly all of them in college or already graduates. And yet throughout this, everybody spoke the regular old Damascus spoken language. For someone to have stood up in front of us all and start speaking written Arabic would have been absolutely preposterous. It would have approximately the same effect as somebody speaking Shakespearean English at a similar meeting. The reaction would be, "Who the heck does he think he is?"

Everything I've done with the Red Crescent, whether it be talking with the residents of the old folks' home we visit, consulting with the administrator of the school where I teach, or attending the weekly meeting with all of the Youth Volunteers -- all of it has used exclusively the spoken Arabic, the so-called `Aammiyya.


This reality on the ground of how regular Arabs use their language is in stark contrast to how the language is taught here at any of the language institutes for foreigners. I can talk in particular about Damascus University's program, since I was enrolled in one of their courses in January and February. The basic attitude of these places is that foreigners must only learn written Arabic and not touch the spoken with a 10-foot pole. What this means is that the scores of foreigners who come here to Damascus to study Arabic can do so -- but many come for months without ever being able to speak a single, complete, correct sentence to their Arab neighbors, since these programs only teach the written Arabic, and that in a way that emphasizes theoretical grammar above all else and shuns anything to do with spoken.

The result of this is that these programs become isolated environments that have nothing to do with the life going on around them. My friend Farah was enrolled in one of the beginning classes at Damascus University and on her first day the teacher asked "How are you?" "tamaam," replied Farah, using a word that she'd learned from a Syrian friend meaning "perfect" -- a word that is part of the most classical Arabic. Yet her teacher clicked her tongue and corrected Farah, encouraging her to use instead a response that is rarely used in the spoken, "jayyid." This anti-spoken prejudice was even embedded into the system: for Farah's spoken test, she was told that use of so-called "`Aammiyya" words would result in points taken off.

Similarly, in my class we were given scenarios to act out with a partner: My partner Maria (from Spain) and I received one that called for one of us to be the proprietor of a restaurant and the other a customer who forgot his wallet at home. We were of course required to speak these in written Arabic -- but to deal with such a situation in real life using Fus-ha -- it would just be ridiculous! "innanii ureedu an adhhaba ila bayti li'ajii'u binuquudi" Let me try to put that into English: "I do desire to betake myself to my house in order to bring forth my currency." Can you imagine anyone saying that? So these classes become totally detached from reality, teaching students to speak a language as it is never spoken.

Not only is this way of teaching a big waste, but it also has a terrible effect on how all these foreigners experience Syria. I saw this effect most clearly riding the bus from University one day. I didn't usually take this certain bus, but that day I was meeting a friend at Bab Tuma square, which is where the vast majority of foreigners live here in Damascus. There were about 10 foreigners on this bus -- all clustered in a couple rows of seats and talking loudly in English about what happened last night: "Did you see how drunk so-and-so got?" "Did she really end up sleeping over in his room?" Did these people have any awareness of our Syrian fellow bus-riders, some of whom certainly understand English? Sometimes these foreigners tried to speak in poorly pronounced (and poor) Fus-ha with each other, but that was almost worse than the English to my ears. I wished I could have disappeared, or at least to go sit at the other end of the bus

A British guy sitting across the isle from me and I began to make small talk. When I told him my nationality he gave me an over-exaggerated "shhh" and said, "American?? Don't let it out out of the bag!" as if the Syrians around us on the bus were likely to attack or kidnap me at any moment. I guess this was an attempt at some kind of joke, but at its heart it really wasn't, I'm sure. I don't know how long this particular Brit had been in Damascus, but I couldn't believe his ignorance and rudeness towards the people he's living among. Maybe, I've thought, if he had been learning the language in a way that put him in natural communication with people, he would have learned that Syrians as a matter of principle are extremely welcoming to people of all nationalities -- see my previous post on when I went to the anti-American demonstration for proof.

I should point out that a huge number of foreign students here are Muslims studying with the goal of being able to read the holy Qur'an. For most of these folks they would have every reason to study only the formal written Arabic -- not only is this the language of the holy Qur'an but also the spoken language among the international Muslim community. For them, these institutes are focusing on the right thing, but for students like me who are interested in a lot in addition to the religious context of Arabic, they fall short.

I don't want to come out of this seeming like a big hater of written Arabic -- I'm not. I love the fact that it so amazingly logical, that it's pretty much the same as it was 14 centuries ago, and that it is shared over such a wide area of the world. The reason I'm pushing so hard for the spoken Language is that it's seriously oppressed as a serious field of study in the current situation. Also, I've been mostly studying spoken Arabic here. My logic behind that is that I can study Fus-ha all I want once I get back to the U.S., but here the opportunity for experiencing and practicing the spoken language is unique. And we must remember that the spoken and the written share so much in common that the study of each of them can help each other, as long as the differences are kept clear.


The other reason mentioned of the Conventional Wisdom for not studying spoken Arabic is the differences between dialects. While it is true that speaking and understanding just one dialect cannot get you around every corner of the Arab speaking countries, the situation is not as drastic as all that. The most important thing to remember is that though every Arab has grown up speaking one dialect, everyone here has a large capacity for understanding other dialects, a capacity which decreases the farther one goes from one's hometown. For this reason, a Moroccan and an Iraqi would have a great deal of trouble understanding one another, while a Damascene and a Palestinian would have very little trouble at all. Besides the significant differences in pronunciation, the words that change between the different dialects make up a small percentage: no more than 10% of words. Most of those shared words are also shared with written Arabic too. [I don't know if those statistics include the North African countries east of Egypt -- I doubt they do in fact]

I don't want to de-emphasize the differences too much, since they can be significant, but let me give some examples of how the different dialects interact with one another on the ground.

Damascus is known by the name ash-Sham, which is also a name that refers to the whole region. What is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine were all together known as Bilaad ash-Sham (Lands of Sham) with Damascus as it's capital -- this is before the European powers came in during WWI and carved up the region into the current nations. My point is that for a long time Damascus has been a central point in the region; people speaking all different dialects have come and still do come to trade, find work, and study.

For this reason the Damascus dialect is more well known than others and yet at the same time the city becomes something of a dialogue melting pot. Among this mix, there of course remains the very thick Shami dialect which is characterized by, among other things, extending the final syllable of sentences with rising intonation. People who come to Damascus for work or study usually pick up at least some elements of that Damascus dialect, but rarely all of its thickest and most slangy elements. Because of this situation, many living here and originally from other regions can switch back and forth from their native dialect to the shared dialect spoken here.

What's even more fascinating than this is the ability among people of the region for shared understanding without the need to switch into one another's dialects. I've experienced this in a limited way from the traveling I've done here. In Halab (Aleppo), for instance, the word for "what" is ish as opposed to the Damascus shoo that I've grown familiar with. Having learned that and a few other bits of info about the Halabi dialect before going, I was able to manage talking with Aleppans without the need for us switching into each other's dialects. (I must mention that in the grand scheme of things, these two dialects are very close.) It is also common here for people to enjoy talking about the other dialects -- this mostly involves making fun of them, but from that mocking comes a general knowledge about the surrounding ways of speech.

I saw this phenomenon of shared understanding most dramatically while riding in a taxi from Amman to Damascus. There were five Syrians with me in squeezed into one of these boat-wide classic American cars used as the inter-city taxis of the region. We had to wait for 2 hours at a rest stop since the border doesn't open up for taxis until mid-afternoon, and this gave us a good chance to talk.

The driver was the most talkative of all: I never learned exactly where he came from in Syria, but his speech was thick with elements that I've learned to be part of the Beduin dialects. For example, he pronounced the letter qaaf as a hard G and bii replaced fii as the "there is/there are" verb. For me, being only the slightest bit familiar with this dialect, I had a great deal of trouble understanding all the details (and the point) of the long story he narrated with dramatic pauses and all sorts of rhetorical expressions. It had something to do with a certain shady character cheating some other folks out of something or other, with lots of travel between countries on airplanes...

Seated up in the front seat next to the driver were two young men from Aleppo, both having gone to Amman to pick up their visas to Singapore where they were headed to attend some computer conference. On my left was a large man from Raqqa (a small town on the Euphrates) dressed in a very nice suit. His dialect also had Beduin elements (the hard G for example) but it was clearly distinct from the driver. He works in China as a businessman. Next to me on the right was a less talkative fellow, whose dialect I couldn't identify but who was most certainly not from Damascus. I was seated squeezed in the middle of the back seat, listening to all of them.

The miraculous thing was that everyone stuck to speaking their own dialect throughout and no one (except for me, rather desperately!) ever felt the need to say, "Uh, excuse me, could you say that one more time?" They all did fine understanding one another and communicating with one another without needing to switch into any sort of common tongue, whether that be Fus-ha or a common dialect like Damascus's. In fact, with the modest contributions I managed to make to that soup of accents and words, I was proud to be the sole Damascus representative.

[While I've been writing this post over the past few days, I was loaned a book that deals with how all the different types of Arabic fit together in peoples lives and the relationships between the dialects (among other things). I've only just started to read it, but it's great fun, and of course the author is drawing from a wider range of experience and research than my humble observations. Already I've learned some great new things. For anyone interested, it is: "Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties" by Clive Holes, Georgetown U. Press]


The main way I've been learning something about these dialects is through studying jokes. There is this great radio show here called "Nikte-Life" -- Nikte means joke, so I guess you could translate the title Joke-Life, but the important part is not the meaning but that they managed to stick an English word in there somehow. A new 5 minute episode comes out each day, containing 5 jokes and repeated 4 times each day.

My teacher has recorded a boat-load of episodes and every lesson we study an episode or 2 -- among other more literary pursuits. Not only is it great fun to be studying jokes, but it's also gives access to a wide range of everyday language and a great deal of cultural insight. Most jokes are in the Damascus dialect, but a lot of them take advantage of the comic properties of all the dialects: there have been Egyptian, Beduin, Haurani, Halabi, Jordanian, Syrian Coastal, and even Sudanese!

The jokes come in the form of dialogues between two or more people, and the actors who do them are terrific. In the U.S. there's no such thing anymore as radio dramas, but here they're still honing their skills at making the human voice, in and of itself, both captivating and hilarious. Sometimes the only thing that's funny about these jokes is the brilliant delivery; the content can be very lame. Whether funny or not, each joke is followed by uproarious canned laughter that lasts for much longer than any of the jokes deserve.

I must admit that I often tell one or two from these Nikte-Life jokes at social gatherings -- they are always well-received and I always learn a few new jokes in return. I think it fits in with the importance of proverbs in this culture that I wrote about before: there exists an incredibly rich shared spoken language heritage.

Here are some favorites:

-Young Woman: Dad... there's this young man ... who would like to ask you for my hand in marriage...

-Father: Does he have money?!? I mean, does he earn a lot?!?!?

-Young Woman: Hm, how strange! He asked me the exact same question about you!

Plenty of them fall into the universal husband-wife joke category:

-Wife: Honey, I'm going over to visit our neighbor; 5 minutes, I'll be gone 5 minutes only!

-Husband: Okay, goodbye Dear.

-Wife: Sweetie, I've put a dish on the stove; every half hour stir it a little, okay?

Also, lots of bad puns, a few of which translate easily...

-Customer: Do you have color televisions?

-Store Owner: Of course, ma'am, which would you like?

-Customer: Give me a green one, please.

... and most of which need some explanation: in Arabic the word for "hour" and "wristwatch" (and "clock" for that matter) are all the same: saa`ah

-Doctor: Take this medicine. Every saa`tayn [two hours] on the dot!

-Patient: But Doctor, I only have saa`ah wahdeh [one watch]!

And like jokes the world over, many take advantage of people being stupid:

-A: Um Hamdi! What on earth are you doing??

-B: Hm! It's as if you're not seeing today. I'm installing the heater! [The sobia, this type kerosene stove which is a real cultural fixture here in Syria]

-A: You're installing the heater outside??

-B: Yes, because outside is colder than inside.

-A: Excuse me, mister, where's the other sidewalk?

-B: There's the other sidewalk over there.

-A: How strange! I was just over there and they told me it was here.

This last one is a good example of how oftentimes the stupid person in the joke is assigned a different dialect than Damascus -- this person happens to be speaking in the Halabi dialect. I gather that this works in a similar way to how people make redneck jokes in the States.

A few take special advantage of the radio format, and make the joke out of how the listener can't see the situation:

[driving noises]

-A: Watch out, man, there's a telephone pole in font of us, what's wrong with you?

-B: I see it, I see it!!

-A: I'm telling you watch out. Watch out, we're gonna hit that telephone pole, dammit!

-B: I told you, I see it!

-A: Wha-- Aaaaaghghghghgghhh!!! [car crashes into telephone pole] Agh, Agh!! May God not grant you success! [see 1st part of this post] Help us!! Didn't I tell you to watch out for that telephone pole?!?

-B: Look, I saw it, but you were the one who was driving!

Some play on the language of politeness:

-Customer: One coffee, if you please.

-Waiter: How's your coffee, sir? [i.e., how do you want your coffee?]

-Customer: My coffee's well, thank you. How is your coffee?

This one plays on the relatively similar sound of the words for coffee (ahwe) and family (`a'ile) and the fact that "How's your family?" is one of the everyday polite questions one can ask when greeting another.

There have been a couple that make fun of a Beduin coming into contact with modern life. One with the Beduin riding in an airplane for the first time, one with the Beduin who thinks his son is in love with a foreigner named "Nokia" ("Didn't I tell you to only marry your cousin, you dog!") and my favorite where the Beduin goes out for Pizza (Or Bitza, rather, since Arabs have some trouble with the letter "P"). I won't write it all out because it's long and because it would be impossible to translate the drastic difference between the thick Beduin dialect and the hip, urbane speech of the Damascene waiter.

The gist is that the Beduin tells the waiter he's forgot something to go with the Bitza... The ketchup? ... no ... the mayonnaise? ... no ... "What," he says, "Do you think I've never eaten this Bizta before? You brought the what's-it-called, this Bista, but you forgot to bring the bread!!"

The joke is that people here (not just Beduins) eat lots of bread with every meal, and this poor foolish Beduin guy doesn't get it that Bitza with bread is a little redundant. I can vividly imagine the type of restaurant where this takes place: very "hip" and "modern" decor, young folks lounging around who are just way to cool for themselves, and "western" food which is likely to be rather terrible, by anyone's standards.

I couldn't write about jokes is Syria without mentioning Homsni jokes. Basically, the people of the city of Homs have been selected as the "dumb blonds" of Syrian jokes -- why, I don't know, since everyone seems to agree that they are wonderful people. There are lots of jokes about Homsnis. The best one I've heard recently is this: The people of Homs and Hama are having a battle, and they're set up firing at each other from behind barricades. From the Hama side someone shouts out: "Hey, Abu Muhammad!" and then Abu Muhammad on the Homs side stands up and they shoot him. "Hey, Abu Khaalid!" and the same thing happens to Abu Khaalid. This keeps going until half the Homsnis are dead, so the remaining ones call a meeting. They realize they're going to have to do something if they want this to stop. The smartest one of them stands up and says, "Okay, next time, Abu `Ali, you stand up instead of Abu `Abdo when they call his name.

The other day I studied one from "Nikte-Life" that was remarkable because it didn't have a punch line at all, but rather described a situation that any Syrian would presumably know and could laugh about:

-A: Damn, damn these terrible times. I was once "Prince Nakis" who played the world on his fingers [=was in control of everything like a puppeteer] and a thousand people wanted some sign of all that money I had. But then I suffered a killer relapse, and where am I now? Selling radishes on a board in the vegetable market. Oh, I hope people will buy, at least, at the very least so I can earn the price of the tobacco for this pipe of mine. Seriously, seriously, these are terrible times!

-B: For this pipe of yours? Of course no one's going to buy your radishes with you sitting there, one leg on top of the other, and your nostrils about to knock on the clouds [=you've got your nose in the air; you're pompous], and your snout is stuck out front [=you've got that grumpy face], and you've put this pipe stuck inside it, and you're calling out with disgust: "Radishes, you idiots! Radishes, you riffraff!"

I'll close with my most favorite, since it has some true cleverness to it. But to let those non-Arabic speakers among you figure it out yourselves, here's a glossary of some key words: rizz = rice ; djaaj = chicken ; shuurba = soup ; baarid = cold ; saakhin = hot. If you don't get it, try saying the "French" words out loud.

-A: Look, bro -- you -- I mean -- I told you I don't know how to say a single word of French, I mean -- why do you insist on embarrassing me...

-B: Hey, this is the most delicious and very best restaurant in the city -- and do you need to talk poetry? OK, now as soon as the waiter comes, put "oh" after every word you want to say and it will become French-like. What, is it chemistry?

-A: Now, I just put "oh"?

-B: Yeah, just "oh". What do you think? -- Ha! Look, here he comes, get ready!

-A: Yes, uh ... waiter? If you please, I would like ... rizz-oh and djaaj-oh and a bowl of shuurb-oh.

-Waiter: baarid-oh?

-A: No! saakhin-oh!!

So there you have it. A whole cart-load of saved-up thoughts about this crazy Arabic language. In sha allah I have been able to pass on to you some of the joy I get from it. Allah y`ateekon al-`aafiye.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Update and Comments on a Protest

Dear Blog-reading Friends,

Once again I apologize for being a terrible blogger. I should indeed never promise big upcoming posts, but I can say that I've been having a great time. Just got back from a quick trip to `Amman, barely getting back into Syria. Al-hamdulilah. I am glad to be back in ash-Sham, my home.

I do have a little something to offer up for you now however. Not a post about my life or my activities really, but I just read this post on syriacomment about a small protest. As I had been at the protest too (by chance!) and seen some things rather differently than the other guy, I had to type up my version of the story right away. You can read it as a comment to that post.

I won't promise any posts coming up soon, but... Uul in sha' Allah. Say "inshallah".

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Where am I?

Not a bad question, judging from my presence on this blog.

The answer is, yes, I'm here, still in Syria and still doing just fine. Doing great in fact. I've been a good deal busier than I had been, and because of this I haven't gotten any posts done. There's a big fat one that I've been planning for weeks (i actually wrote an outline for it) about a lot of big ideas about how we experience other cultures -- but I don't know for sure when I'll get it finalized since in the immediate future I'm staying busy.

In terms of Syria in the international news, I have a few of my own observations on the whole Danish Cartoon Hoopla, but most of my experience here has been regular life: studying Arabic, teaching English at a school for blind kids!, and studying `oud as well. The most interesting (and most complicated) thing I continue to experience is my continued conversations with different kinds of Syrians. As I acquire a more and more detailed and complex idea of "what life is like here", the less and less I can imagine how I could ever put together an adequate answer to the question: "So, tell us, what is Syria like?"

All in all, life is good. I miss things about home after all these months, but I can already feel the end of my time here approaching -- and it's a little bit scary.

That's the report for now. I will do my utmost to have a good post or two coming up in the next few weeks.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

clothes, clothes, and more clothes

Although I usually go through life paying little attention to what everyone (including myself) is wearing, here I have had a chance to take more notice than usual. Being an outsider of sorts makes it easy to be conscious of what people are wearing and why, so here are some things I've noticed about the clothes of Damascus. I'll start by saying that what people wear can change a lot from place to place, from neighborhood to neighborhood. Since I haven't come close to visiting all the neighborhoods and suburbs of Damascus, this will not come close to being an exhaustive survey.

The Kuliyat al-Adab (College of Literature), one of the campus areas of Damascus University, is a fascinating place. Well, the place itself is not beautiful or exciting: buildings surrounding a little park and some driveways. The interesting aspect are the people there, who can probably be said to best represent the clothes of Syrian Youth. More interesting than just their clothes is everyone's behavior. My estimate is that far less than 50% of the people you see hanging out there on any given day will enter a lecture hall -- and there are probably a number of them not even enrolled. But the Kuliat al-Adab is (as far as I have gathered) the place for daytime hangout. Strolling pathways or lounging on benches you will see groups (usually same-sex groups) of students chatting and generally looking cool -- cooler than me at least. In vulgar terms, it seems like a sort of mating grounds -- and clothes are key. (I must say, however, in defense of some friends who are serious students, that that is not all that goes on there.)

To properly describe the clothes of the students (or not) of Damascus University, I have to go astray a little ways and describe one of the strangest experiences on this trip: my few hours spent lounging around at the American University of Beirut. The campus of AUB has to be one of the most spectacular in the world -- clinging to a hillside above the Mediterranean are beautiful buildings and even more beautiful trees. All the students speak a mix of Arabic and English so much so that I don't think I overheard one "pure" sentence in any conversation. (In Damascus, the question, "Bt`arif wayn al-Bookstore?" would make me stand out as a foreigner -- at AUB it made me fit right in!) The really creepy part was their clothes: So American! So stylish! Aaagh!! It was terrifying. I recommend that GAP, Abercrombie & Fitch, and whoever else is even more stylish than those 2, go and film some commercials there -- the scenery can't be beat and they wouldn't have to pay to dress anyone! And I mean "American" in the most straight-out-of-the-catalog sense. I would swear that they all looked more "American" than people I'm used to seeing back home.

If that's not the case, then I have grown accustomed to how young, hip folks dress here in Damascus. While there's certainly nothing "traditional" about how these young people dress, it's a far cry from the AUB overly-American style, and from what I gather of the hip Euro-youth style, the Syrian styles differ from that as well. In general young people here very much get dressed on a daily basis -- what I mean by that is there don't seem to be many folks like me who just grab whatever's nearest and cleanest -- people are stylish. There's of course a lot of variety, but here's a typical shebb's (youth's) outfit, from the bottom up: Leather shoes are a must, often even with pointy toes. My year-and-a-half-old New Balances give me away as not "with it" immediately. Usually jeans (sometimes slacks) are the pants of choice: never worn baggy but I haven't seen many super-tight examples either. The top could be a snazzy button-down shirt, or maybe a sweater; a leather jacket on top would always be a good touch. English writing on shirt or jacket is always a plus, and colors tend towards the conservative side. (In my winter coat, a two-tone navy and light blue, I feel like I'm wearing hot pink.) Last but not least, hair is important: always trimmed and often slicked back. That there's the dominant look on young guys.

With girls, there's more variety -- nothing so widespread that I can describe it like I did the guy's outfit above. I can reaffirm, however, that in general the girls dress very stylishly like the guys, even if they need to be categorized into more separate styles. It's interesting to me that while in the US for guys to be concerned too much about their appearance is a little taboo, here males seem to be the more image conscious of the sexes. (I have that from report, rather than my opinion.)

Because girls' clothing has a lot more variety than guys', I will not be able to describe a typical "outfit", but I will have to talk about the Hijab. At first I was reluctant to write about this since I feel like in general Western observers make WAY too big of a deal about this piece of clothing and culture, but I want to share some of the things I've thought and learned about it over my time here.

First of all, some women in Syria wear hijab, some don't, and this is not really a big deal. Sure, it is a part of what defines peoples' image and culture, but that's the way clothes are the world over. I was surprised at the extent to which wearing a hijab or not seems to make no difference in the way people are treated here -- the environment here has made the policy of France banning headscarves in schools seem to me especially extreme and racist.

There's also the issue of what exactly is the hijab? Judging from world media coverage of Islam, there's probably somebody reading this who is imagining I'm talking about the burka, which everyone obsessed over during the war in Afghanistan -- the answer is, no, I haven't seen any burkas here. I think hijab (veil) once meant strictly the fabric covering the eyes and face, but now folks also mean the headscarf type of covering when they use the word.

Since most Syrians are Sunni Muslims (roughly three quarters), the majority of women wear the hijab. Most of those people cover their hair, ears and neck with a tightly pinned scarf. A small percentage have only their eyes showing, and an even smaller have their entire face covered with a piece of fabric. I don't know all the details about the practices of the various other sects, but a number of them also wear the hijab. In addition to this, many Christians (especially older women) wear a scarf over their hair, though this is in a distinguishably different style from the Muslim headscarves. Daughters of mothers who wear hijab start wearing hijab at different ages, probably from 6 to 14 or so -- I don't know what governs that variety.

What the hijab actually ends up looking like ranges a lot from person to person or from place to place. On the most conservative end seems to be the all-black outfit with black hijab. On the other end, many people wear western-style clothes and a brightly colored mesh wraps sparkling over their headscarf. There are of course a lot of varieties in between those two extremes. One very common outfit among women is a long, simple, darkly colored coat-type garment with a hijab of white, patterned, or sometimes colored fabric.

One thing the hijab certainly does not do is stop people from trying to look pretty. Like I said, many people get dressed here. It also doesn't stop people from being pretty, whether or not they have been making an effort -- but that's nothing out of the ordinary, right?

My own thoughts about the presence of the hijab here have changed a lot since I first arrived. My first few weeks, while I was not much going outside of my largely Muslim neighborhood, I thought about the hijab a lot. I really missed seeing people's hair. I think what did this for me (and perhaps part of what gets many non-Muslims all worried about the hijab) is that it somehow seems like people lose their individuality without their hair showing. When you think about it, it's kind of an absurd idea: why should I have to see someone's hair to value them as an individual? Do I need to see any other particular body part? Maybe to be more precise, I was having trouble seeing these folks as individuals since they appeared different to me -- wearing this item of clothing that sets them distinctly apart from how I'm used to seeing most people. (I guess I should mention, though, that my next-door-neighbors in the states wear the hijab -- so this was not a completely foreign thing to me.)

The first new thought I had was thanks to the wife of my teacher. Coming to answer the door for me, she would of course grab a scarf to put over her head, and if for some reason the scarf slipped a bit, she would immediately fix it. Now what is it that makes her want to fix this scarf? I think before this moment, somewhere in my head there was a very vague picture of Muslim husbands cruelly forcing unwilling wives to wear this barbarous symbol of their domination. Rather, I think what makes her want to fix the scarf is simply because that's the appropriate and decent thing to do. It's what her mother does, and it's what her grandmother would have done.

For this reason, I think people who focus negatively on the hijab and talk about "liberating" the Arab woman are simplistic and inconsiderate. Despite having met men with deplorably chauvinistic attitudes about the issue, (e.g. "I only want to marry someone with her face covered.") most of all I think its a deep-seated tradition. It seems much more just "what we do", rather than being imposed by a force. And when it is imposed, it seems to be just as much (if not more) women as men who enforce these types of social standards. I've also experienced what should have been obvious: that wearing a hijab or not does not determine one's "liberalness." In a group of mixed-gender companions -- some of the girls with hijab, some without -- it was one of the ones wearing hijab who rightly called out one of the guys for a chauvinistic comment and set him straight.

The other big moment I had in my early thoughts about the hijab was when I first went to visit Jaramana, an outlying neighborhood of Damascus that's mostly made up of Christians and Druze -- i.e., people who don't wear hijab. Before that point I had not spent a lot of time far from my almost entirely hijab-wearing neighborhood. Walking around Jaramana was really mind-blowing for me. Those first 3 weeks, thinking about the hijab, I had very much associated in my mind the categories "Arab" and "Muslim". Of course I knew of Syria's diversity and I had seen plenty of non-hijabbed people around, but this was different. It made me think, being in a neighborhood where more than 90 percent of people have their hair showing, and yet: they're all Syrians, they're all speaking this language I could not really understand, they're all very different from me -- without that surface difference of the hijab to set us apart. And that's just what the hijab is: a surface difference. I'm not saying that it's inconsequential, but that all the fuss seems a little misplaced.

Since that time, the most notable thing has happened: I've stopped thinking about the hijab so much. I've gotten used to it, in a way that I wouldn't have thought possible. It's just not a big deal to me anymore. Sure, I notice if someone is wearing it or not, but no longer do I miss seeing people's hair. I think what has most contributed to this is my getting to know a few girls who wear hijab. I can look at these friends and see them rather than the fact they are wearing this thing. This helps to remind me that everyone I pass on the street is like that: they've got a unique personality underneath -- I just can't see it right away, whether or not their hair is covered by a piece of fabric. That sentence seems rather simplistic, but perhaps it takes a couple of months to really internalize these things when we're in a new and different place.

As I've already explained, how many people you see with or without hijab depends on the neighborhood or the occasion. At the Kuliyat al-Adab, there are a fair number of people wearing hijab (maybe 40 percent-ish?) but a lot of those (though not all) are the type that get dressed up to the nines. The place where I've seen the fewest heads covered was not (as you might expect) the church I went to on Christmas Eve, but instead the concert I saw of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. I'm not sure exactly what the meaning of that was -- but it was on the whole a very moneyed crowd there. In Hamra, the downtown super-fancy clothes shopping district, more than half of women shopping there are veiled. I'm trying here to give some figures here, but as I've been noticing less and less, I really can't say anything for sure!

Note: (1/7/2005) As a commenter has revealed, my treatment of the veil here does not talk about the religious reasons for wearing it. These are of course a big part of the picture -- I did not write about them because they have not played a big role in my surface perceptions and my interactions with people. Hopefully some other folks will comment, since as this commenter said, there is a wide range of opinions on this issue.

In terms of older men -- not the snazzy young shebaab (plural of shebb), there is some variety, but especially on the ends of the wealth spectrum. I mean that both the guy wearing a super-sharp business suit and the construction worker both stand out, since a lot of men seem to wear the same general thing all the time: Long dark pants (never shorts) and a simple shirt or sweater, often with a tacky pattern on it. People seem to be really consistent about this -- and this is not at all in a fancy or dressed-up way. I've wondered how many of those shebaab will trade in their snazzy imitation Harley Davidson shirt for a plaid sweater when they get married.

Another clothing item that I can't forget is the Bajaama. Here, pajama does not mean just for sleeping -- oh no. You've got the Bajaamat an-Nawm, i.e. pajamas of sleep, and then the Bajaamat ar-Riyada, i.e. pajamas of sport, and maybe even more varieties than I'm aware of. "Pajamas of Sport" just means a sweat-suit or work-out clothes. But it seems that many men change into their "pajamas" as soon as they get home from work, and often go back out to the market dressed in their Adidas (or "Adidas") suit. All little kids seem to have a set of "pajamas of sport" as well, that they're often wearing after getting back from school and changing out of their uniforms. It's funny how this type of clothing (the work-out suit) has a totally different role compared with it's role in America.

Kids' school uniforms are kind of interesting: the youngest wear little unisex blue jumpers, with little pleated skirts and bandanas attached. The older kids wear matching grey pants and jacket -- this also doesn't vary between boys and girls. The uniforms for kids are a relatively new phenomenon: friends my age did not wear them when they were in school.

There are not a whole lot of clothes that seem "traditional" in one way or another. It is common to see white scarfs with black embroidery (whose name I has slipped my mind) that are Arab in origin -- mostly in practical use by people who work outside to protect them from sun and cold. Some older men wear long simple robes. I'm not sure what their origin is, but often times in this cold weather you see them combined with a sport coat on top -- a great combination in my opinion.

One interesting place to see variety in clothes is near the Abu Noor Mosque, where Muslims come from all over the world to study Arabic and Islamic Law. On these people you often see clothes much more "traditional" than what the local Syrians are wearing. You might see two bearded, robed, and skull-capped men walking towards you -- a "picture" of Islam -- only to find them conversing with the most distinguished British accents you have ever heard.

I at first had a significant desire to imitate the style of the Syrian shebb -- not because I wanted to become Syrian, but in the interest of helping out my language: the more local I look, the more likely people are to talk with me naturally -- that was the idea. Thankfully, I didn't make any significant purchases towards this goal, and this desire has dissipated as my language as improved. That's the great thing about learning the language and speaking with people: I'm trying to get past all these surface things (clothes included) and aiming at the deeper and more important differences and similarities between us.