Monday, September 26, 2005

night life in Damascus

I live in Salhiyya – a term that describes a large area that creeps up the slope of Jebel Kassioun, northwest of the city center. The region was settled around 1100 by refugees from the crusader massacres in Jerusalem. My neighborhood is called Sheikh Muhiddeen (or Muhi Ad-Deen), named after the mosque of the same name, just 100 meters down the hill from my door. There lived and died the Sheikh himself (d. 1240), a great Sufi mystic.

I like the neighborhood for a lot of reasons – one of the biggest is the night life here. The space between "night" and "life" is purposeful, mind you. I'm not talking about restaurants, discos, or
hip cafes, (I hear that those can be found somewhere down in the center) but quite simply, the life that happens at night. There's a lot of it here, and it doesn't fit into any of my pre-existing

People stay up late – more specifically, families stay up late. I am often walking home, well past 11 o'clock, and a husband, wife, young son, and baby in the baby carriage are casually passing me. Stands and stores stay open late, and I see folks of all ages out shopping when I am headed home for an early bed. Children play in the street at all hours of the day and the night. Directly outside my door is one of the flatter sections of street; therefore a popular location for soccer games. As I write the boys are laughing and shouting as they play; their ball occasionally bangs up against my door. Even the littlest of kids are out in the street all day, playing tag or hide-and-go-seek.

This constant activity is a testament to the safety of the city. My neighborhood is not alone: you can walk anywhere in Damascus without fear of theft or violence. It is comforting, as well as impressive in this city of over 6 million. ("Theft" here comes a little more subtly in the form of overpricing for foreigners – a tolerable annoyance.)

It is always a pleasure to walk the souq at night. People are talking, hawking their wares, sitting, eating, and strolling. A portion of this life I do not see. Nearly every night as I fall asleep music is playing somewhere nearby. Sometimes that means the same-old, same-old pop songs on the radio, other times the music of a wedding party – complete with the stomps of dancing and the
celebratory screams of the women. Here, 5 minutes by microbus from the center of the city, everything else seems fairly distant. Life here is enough: what is the price of tomatoes here compared with at the next stand? Which is the newest, hippest, imitation Puma t-shirt for sale? And perhaps most importantly, who is winning the soccer match outside my door?

traffic madness

The first and most immediately shocking piece of culture shock I have experienced here is the way people drive – it's almost indescribable. People are absolutely crazy – at least that is my initial reaction every time I see some amazing dare-devil move. I'm still getting used
to it all.

To start with, there are no lane markers – in some places you can see the traces of them, but they've all been blackened over, and not even the concept of a lane remains. It really is a free-for-all. Cars start, stop, back up, and turn all without the slightest warning to others. And of course, when there's an open road, people drive FAST. My personal favorite move is folks who want to turn left at a traffic circle; they just skip the circle and cut to the left the shorter way. Honking is also very popular here – constant and loud. It can mean different things like "do you want to get in my taxi?" or "get out of my way!" – potentially confusing, eh? The noise only diminishes on Friday, yawm al-jum`a, when everything is closed.

Accidents? I keep expecting to witness something spectacular, but all I've seen so far is the aftermath of a little fender-bender. People's confidence makes it seem like they are invincible to
accidents – but then I remember Basil al-Assad: This former president-to-be was killed in a car accident a while back. Now parks are named after him and he is featured in songs such as "Basil the Martyr:" A certain type of immortality, I suppose…

At the bigger intersections there are traffic lights, but these are never visible to pedestrians since they come before the intersection. What I love most about these lights is that they have little countdown numbers – not for the green light so you can prepare to stop, but for the red lights: This way, I suppose, you can rev your engine properly or, (more likely) honk at the car in front of you who has not yet revved his engine. There are also a good number of traffic police. I don't quite understand their language of whistles and batons, but they do seem to have a positive effect on the traffic – that is, when they are not chatting with their friends on the sidewalk.

Pedestrians seem crazy too, setting out to calmly cross 6 lanes of moving traffic – the truly amazing things is that they pull it off. That's the thing: despite the every-which-way free-for-all that is driving here, everyone is generally pretty aware of what's going on around them. The Lonely Planet (under the heading Dangers and Annoyances) described it as "chaos mixed with courtesy." Drivers do often watch for pedestrians, even if they honk their horns off. What's unsettling about this courtesy is that nobody (drivers or pedestrians) likes to stop – people just slow down and squeeze around each other. What's really scary is that I have begun to imitate all this behavior – what I have to remind myself for folks here, crossing 6 lanes of traffic on foot is almost in their blood – they've been doing it since they could walk. I am a mere novice.

Last night I saw an impressive example of this phenomenon of motor vehicles here: a guy on a little motorbike was speeding through the narrow souq in my neighborhood: vegetable stands on one side, clothes stores on the other, people strolling in between. I got myself to the side, and in front of me I saw him zip past a family and almost run down a little girl. To my surprise, however, he immediately screeched to a halt, stood up, turned, and took a few seconds to apologize to the girl and her mother. In an instant, he was back on his bike, zooming forward as fast as before.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

language jollies

I am here to learn Arabic, among other things. At this stage, having been here just about a month, that is what I have spent most of my time doing: hours in class and hours outside of class every day, with 1-day weekends so far. So much studying that I have visited hardly any of the touristy sites in the city, and I've only left ash-Sham once. (ash-Sham is Damascus' common name.) This is okay with me though: the theory is that the sooner I become competent (and then fluent) in the language, the more valuable the rest of my time here will be. I also imagine that the value I will get out of those touristy sites then will be even greater than I would now. I am not at any university program, but instead studying with a private teacher named Hussein. This guy is an amazing character: he's got a rare theory about the Arabic language, a rare program that (supposedly) successfully teach foreigners Arabic, and a personality that is all his own.

For the uninitiated, here's a simplified rundown of Arabic's identity crisis: is the true language the spoken dialects that every Arab learns as a child and speaks every day, or is it the written Arabic of newspapers and television news that unites all the countries of the Arab world? Hussein's take on all this is of a "unified Arabic" that identifies the connections, similarities, and differences between the spoken dialects, modern written, and classical Arabic. A pretty cool idea, I think. Despite his talk of "unity," however, Hussein's true favor definitely lies with spoken Arabic as the most vibrant and interesting part of the language. I don't know if I quite agree with him, but I am willing to roll with his opinion for the moment, in order to learn this language.

At this point, therefore, I am only studying the spoken – not reading newspapers, texts, or anything besides signs in shops. The theory is that I'm learning as an Arab does (roughly): first the spoken, then the written. We'll see how it goes. It will definitely take some extra work to keep the differences between the two separated in my brain, but worth it, I believe, since both seem so important to understanding this culture. You can't have one without with other. The first few weeks were a course made up of 30-some chapters that Hussein has written; each chapter is a dialogue based on some everyday situation: meeting people, taking a taxi, or buying shoes and the like. That was all well and good, but now I have hit upon the real gem of his program: "Yawmiyyaat `Aa'iliyye." This is a Damascus radio drama that Hussein has transcribed after recording it from the radio. (Legal? who cares, I'm learning it.) The title means "Family Diary" and the two characters are Abd ur-Rahmaan and Hadiyye, a husband and wife team. The introductory song that the two of them sing at the beginning of every episode gives a pretty good feel of this. Here is my rough translation. I love the goofy music that accompanies it, though since I hear it 20 times a day, I imagine I'll soon be tired of it.

Hadiyye: Where are you Abd ur-Rahmaan?
Abd ur-Rahmaan: Who is calling me?
H: I'm your wife, can't you hear?
A: What does this wife of mine want with me?
H: The radio station called me, … I got up and picked up the receiver…
A: What did they say?
H: They want us to present for them a play.
A: What should we talk about in it?
H: About our daily life!
[Musical interlude with voice-over: "Family Diary"]
A: Who wants to write it?
H: Abd ul-Kariim Ismaa'iil
A: Who wants to direct it?
H: The director is Marwan Qanuu`
A: And who wants to act in it? … Tell me and don't be embarrassed…
H: Wafaa' bint il-Muusallii and `Asaam ibn al-`Abaji
A: You really escaped from my saddlebag!!

Quite a rich text, eh? As we see from the first couple of lines, these two are always arguing and making fun of each other – it's genuinely very funny. Also at the end we see an idiom – and the episodes are full of proverbs, polite expressions, idioms, and religious expressions. This particular idiom (the one about the saddlebag) means "you are cleverer than me," the source of it being: if a bird you caught escapes from your saddlebag, it is cleverer than you. I suppose this could be referring to the fact that as Hadiyye says the names of the actors she is actually talking about "herself" or the "person depicting herself" – clever in a "meta" sense, perhaps? I don't know. A deeper part of me suspects that this particular idiom is in there for a more practical reason: "my saddlebag" and "embarrassed" both rhyme with "`Abaji."

The episodes themselves really are just about daily life. Hadiyye and `Aboody (her pet name for him) discuss taking out the trash, buying meat, quitting smoking, and who's going to make the coffee. The actors are great – just hearing their voices, even before I understand, is hilarious. As I said before, it's filled with slang, proverbs, idioms – language at it's realest. Hussein is very good at explaining these things, as well as pointing out which elements are particular to the Damascus dialect, which to the whole region, and which to written as well as spoken Arabic. I really love listening to these plays and working on understanding and repeating them.

So, am I learning anything? Yes, I think, but sometimes it's hard to see that here in the thick of it. The good news is that almost every day, I hear people on the street using some word or idiom that I learned that very day. My comprehension is definitely many times better than it was 4 weeks ago. Speaking is more of a mixed bag. I still often mumble and stumble over even the simplest interactions (buying bread maybe) that I have done almost every day here. My pronunciation has improved, since sometimes people assume from it that I'm fluent. I walk into a shop, say my prepared line ("Hi, I'm looking for the shampoo.") and then I have to stumble and mumble after they answer me in a full-speed sentence that I have not understood a lick
of. Despite the daily frustrations, however, there have been some breakthrough moments, such as a really nice conversation I had with a taxi driver last week, all in Arabic.

All in all, it seems, the situation is good. I like this language a lot, and I'm enjoying myself with these lessons. I'm aiming to keep my nose to the grindstone and study hard so that I can really master it as soon as possible, insha'allah.

Monday, September 19, 2005

For more information about the Syrian situation, visit, an interesting blog run by Joshua Landis. You can also check out his recent NYT op-ed piece at:

Why a Blog?

Before traveling to Syria, I had great plans for a website: every few days, after writing some clever comments about my most recent experiences, I would take my fancy new USB flash drive to an internet café and upload the writing along with pictures from my fancy new camera – the result would have been a simple but comprehensive letter to all those I've left behind. Last week, however, (my third week here) I had pretty much given up hope: this vision of a website would never come to pass. "Sure," I thought to myself, "I might get some pictures up there eventually, but nothing especially descriptive or elaborate. I'm here in an amazing city, learning language, living life – I don't have time for the internet!"

Things changed last week when I read about continued pressure on Syria from the Bush administration. This was nothing new, really; they've been threatening like this for at least the past few months. Before coming here I had been somewhat unclear about why the US government was behaving so absolutely uncooperatively, as well as frustrated with hearing only this single thing about Syria in the media. Indeed, one of the reasons I wanted to come here (in addition to learning Arabic) was to get past the negative press about Syria's government.

Here and now, however, reading these articles about border crossings and harboring terrorists, I got very angry, and not because I disagree with the government's allegations. I, of course, have no way to really know if they are true or not. I got mad because of this quote from an administration official, saying the plan was to "continue trying to isolate it, as we have been. (NYTimes, September 13 th)." What we are seeing here is a deliberate attempt by the US government to completely dehumanize an entire country, to make no distinction between a government and its people. I am not an expert on why the Bush administration and the complicit US media are doing this, but I do know that it is wrong. The issue is not whether or not Bush's accusations are correct and justified or not; the issue is that nothing else is known about this country and these people in the USA (and I imagine other places as well).

What I have seen so far here in Syria is life: people being people, living their lives: laundry hangs out to dry; kids play soccer in the street outside my apartment; folks wearing trendy clothes go shopping for more trendy clothes; people sell grapes in the marketplace; men walk arm in arm (that's ok here); an acquaintance of mine doesn't give a hoot about politics or any of it – he wants to make money and meet girls. I could go on and on – I am continually amazed by the diversity of experience here, of which I have seen merely a fraction. What seems new and strange to me is the normal routine of so many.

This is why I want to make a blog: to show that yes, my friends, even here in Damascus, Syria, life happens. My sense is that nowhere else is anyone saying this, so I want to try to do it, even in this humble fashion. I aim to be a force of anti-isolation for the Syrian people, in contrast to the US government's policy of isolation. My writing may be about a person I met or a place I visited; it also might just be about my own everyday activities: not a native Syrian's life but nevertheless evidence that life goes on here.

Let me make a few things clear about what I'm not doing: This is not a political blog, though of course I might touch on political issues I encounter. I am not a counter-propaganda machine who only writes about the wonderful things of Syria. Naturally, in a place full of life there is a fair share of bad along with the good. Also, please do not read what is written here and think, "Oh, that's what all Syrians must be like." I saw one foolish journalist who came here for a few days and wrote in his own blog judging the national character based on a few folks he'd met in the marketplace frequented by tourists only. Even if I were to meet 10 people every day here for the rest of my 6 months or so, that would be less than 0.1% of the population of Damascus alone. I aim to show a sample of what is here, not to describe the entire place.

Of you (the reader) I ask this: keep in touch with me and let me know what you think, either through this website or just by emailing me. Also, if there's anything that you're specifically curious about, let me know and I'll see what I can come up with. Wish me luck in being consistent and writing here with some frequency. I hope I'll be able to keep it up, what with my studies and the exploring that is always begging to be done here. If we're lucky, I'll figure out how to get some pictures up as well.