Wednesday, November 30, 2005

various thoughts: three months and counting

Hello! I've been here now a little over 3 months, which, depending on how you look at it, seems like either a very long or very short time. I'm still learning a lot, meeting people, and having fun. I still occasionally feel stupid, incompetent, and without purpose, but I tell myself that's natural.

I haven't written here in what feels like a long, long time -- I think it feels so very long to me because I'm always telling myself I'll do a post "really soon" and end up not having the time for whatever reason. I have a long and ever-growing list of topics and experiences that I want to write about, and I see no way that I'll ever get to all of them. I mention this so that no one thinks this blog is a collection of writings that completely document my time here; the topics are ones I happen to feel like writing about and that I think would be interesting and informative for people to read.

In some ways my life is very much the same as it has been, and in other ways it's changing. I'm still spending a good chunk of each day studying, which I'm still enjoying a lot, especially because what I'm learning has such real-life use for me here -- my language continues to improve. Things are changing as I meet more people and make more new friends. I've started to volunteer with the Damascus branch of al-Hilaal al-Ahmar, which has been great. (I hope to write more about my many experiences there in the future). Not only am I doing something productive with them, but I've also met a lot of great friends there. This past week I've also been trying to get out to see some of the films at the Damascus International Film Festival. It's funny to think of regular old Hollywood movies as "international."

I want to take the opportunity of this post (in which I'm writing about no one thing in particular) to affirm the statement I made in my first entry: that my writings and observations here are those of just one person. I recently sat down separately with two of my American acquaintances and I was struck by the differences between our three separate sets of impressions of Syria. Of course there are things that we have observed in common, but I think how we each see this place depends in large part on the relatively small number of Syrians we have individually gotten to know.

For instance, I asked one of these acquaintances what kind of attitudes she had encountered about African-Americans among Syrians. This is not something that I have discussed with every one of my acquaintances about, but from some I've gotten a sense of ignorance at best, and at worst of blatant hatred.

One day, while talking with some boys who live down the street from me, I exchanged pleasantries with a woman who lives near us. She is black, from California, and has moved here with her family to live and to study at the nearby Islamic university. When I told them that she, too, is from America, they replied "yes, but not originally American." I told them (with a very abridged version of the appropriate history lesson) that in fact I am just as "not originally American" as she is. In fact, in another earlier conversation with those boys, I had lamented that in my high school education we never learned that much about the Arab world. By replying that what they're learning similarly ignores history outside the Arab world, they reminded me that the problems of regionalism and ignorance of other cultures is not an American monopoly.

In one group of acquaintances I've seen a "Grand Theft Auto"-inspired impression that all black people are in gangs. In two other acquaintances (unconnected with each other) I encountered a more vicious racism. One, whose cousin lives in Virginia, sang the praises of the KKK, claiming that he didn't "hate black people, just the things they do." To this fellow, "the things they do" mainly meant dealing drugs. Incidentally (or not at all incidentally perhaps) he was also obsessed with asking me what I thought of his favorite blues, rock, and classic R&B musicians, most of whom were black. The other, without offering even a pretext of reason, emphasized that he "just hated n*****s." First, I must mention that the other Syrians present when these opinions were expressed were either firmly against them or they remained indifferent in the subsequent discussion we started up. In both situations (after asking people not to use offensive words) I tried to get people to apply their skepticism of media sources (plentiful when it comes to depictions of Arabs there) to the situation of African-Americans. Maybe, just maybe -- I suggested -- the information you have heard and seen about these people is selective or simply not true.

So, when asking my American acquaintance about this issue, I had already formed in my head a little mini-thesis about Syrians' opinions of African-Americans; that there is widespread ignorance, and the occasional deeply racist attitude. She replied that the impression she had gotten was only that generally people here are fond of the African-American culture. Not only did my impressions differ from these other Americans on specific issues like this one, but I also sensed that each of our general impressions of the country and its people had a very different tinge to it. Clearly, the specific Syrians I have met and know have a big influence on my writings. That being said, I don't mean to completely devalue any of my "mini-theses" that I present here. I've thought about the things I'm writing, and if I didn't think they were important, I wouldn't be doing this in the first place.

I would also encourage folks to comment, especially when I get something wrong. Some friendly soul corrected my last post: the "mini-pizzas" are actually called "fataer," which pretty much scratches the point I was making. Though I have heard them occasionally called "pizzas," I don't actually know if they come from "The West" as I suggested. So comment, please do, and help me out.

To close, and to specify how I see my life changing here, I'll throw in another Arab proverb. People here are really obsessed with their proverbs -- I'm very jealous. This one is a dialogue proverb, which means you can either narrate the dialogue yourself, or if a person next to you knows it, actually act it out with them. I'm not sure if I'll get the wording perfectly, but the spirit is there.

#1: Your cow got into my farm!!

#2: But I don't have a cow!

#1: I know, I don't have a farm either; I just wanted to talk.

I think this pretty well describes a lot of my conversations and acquaintances here, up to this point. Talking for the sake of talking. And while meeting conversation partners in city parks is a fun, important, and infinitely interesting activity, I'm glad to be getting to the point where I'm spending more and more time with people with whom I find a lot of things in common.


Friday, November 11, 2005

Fun with the Roman Script - and - some Thoughts on Cultures

One of my favorite pastimes here is collecting things written in the Roman script that make me laugh. It's not hard to do, since although you still see Arabic script most of the time here, Roman script -- in particular, English -- is widespread and very cool. Widespread, yes, but not widespread enough for there not to be a huge number of misspellings, mistakes, or just awkward usage. They make me laugh, so I want to share some examples I've seen or heard about from others.

-- First of all, you have your basic misspellings. Thanks to irregular spelling in English, you can trace how someone took an English word written in Arabic script, transliterated it back into English and came out with the wrong letter combination. One popular place for English words is on car windshield stickers, where I saw "Kees Me", a pretty standard example of how this double mis-transliteration happens.

-- My friend Martin saw "Go To Hill" written on a windshield. "What," he thought at first, "is this some slogan of a mountaineering club?" As I'm sure you can figure out, it's not, though I think that might be a good use for it.

-- For those who know Arabic script, it is clear how they came up with "Habbi Trafel" written on the side of a bus -- there is no P or V in Arabic.

-- One of my favorites is a plastic bag that I found. On it there is printed a flower of vague anatomy, above which are the words: "lust For You". It's not actually an L that starts it off, but a capital I -- they somehow got the I and the J confused. To add to the awesomeness, below is written: "Tha nks for gour visit". This is a truly fine specimen.

-- Another more predictable category of mistakes you see are not accidental -- imitation brand name clothing -- but still fun. I've seen "NO FAER" and "FUESS JEANS", while "Adibas", "Abidas", or "Abibas" are consistently popular. I wonder why some manufacturers take the trouble to misspell these names while most others have no qualms about pirating the logos and spelling them correctly.

-- What is even better than misspellings is when words are spelled correctly but used in a way that's just not quite right. In huge letters on the central Damascus post office is written "GENERAL ESTABLISHMENT OF POSTS". Not wrong, per se, but something's just a little funny about it, especially written up on a government building.

-- When my friend Josh was visiting last week, he joined me in my search, sighting this one printed on the backpack of a school-kid: "I'm the Friend!" Say it in the right voice and it's funny.

-- This morning I saw a new fancy restaurant with a faux-Italian name that I forget -- in its windows were banners printed with the phrase, "Soft Opening". I don't even know what to say about that one.

-- Last week Josh and I were sitting in the Ummayad Mosque courtyard (a great place to sit) and watching the little kids run around us (a great thing to do). On the back of a smiley little fellow we saw a fake leather jacket that said in big letters:


-- Another type of item always plastered with English words are the school notebooks that are ubiquitous here. They are fairly standard: spiral bound, with plastic covers (the cover is key) decorated in a very "flashy", "cool" way. This usually means a photo collage, adorned with a few words in English that may or may not make sense. They are often very sentimental, like my friend Joachim's that says "You are My Lonely Rose", with a picture of a rose floating over some quaint-looking village scene. (I think they meant Lovely).

-- I just bought one that is decorated with an orange orb magically floating above a hand -- inside the orb is the @ symbol, and around it are flying a number of electron-type balls of light. It says:

is the language of this period

My friend Josh (taking this way too seriously) pointed out the theoretical implications of this one: According to this notebook, technology is not the language of the future, it's the language of this period only, one day to be replaced by some other language. I love it.

-- My most favorite notebook phrase is this: (Imagine the O to be the full size of the notebook and filled with sports photos)
Would you Have the Challenge?

And now for some other examples:

-- "Whatever", written in snazzy yellow letters on a pink shirt, worn by one very tough-looking tough-guy, babe on his arm, missing the essential cultural context that comes with that word.

-- "For Kids", written on the shirt of one of my middle-school-age Syrian pals. He showed it to me proudly, emphasizing that it was from America -- not realizing that a shirt that says "For Kids" would definitely be "not cool" for any middle-schooler.

-- You know that type of sassy shirt that is popular with some girls in the states? The shirts that say stuff like "Princess" or "Sexy" or "Stop Looking at my Chest"? Well, in the middle of the pre-`Eid shopping spree, I saw one of these shirts on a model in a store window -- I classify it as "one of these" because of its style and the way the text was printed. But this is what it said, straight out of the dictionary: "They Hold Me in High Regard"

-- Someone had managed to squeeze this entire sentence onto his car windshield: "Do Not Look At The Girl Sitting Next To Me Because She Is My Girlfriend". Wow.

-- Another favorite, spotted by Joachim, printed on the back of a sweatshirt some guy was wearing.

Do You Like This Move?
[Below that, a stylized picture of guy slam-dunking]
Your Girl Does.

Oh, what I would pay for a sweatshirt like this.

Well, I started out writing this post to merely share some funny things I like to laugh about, but I think there's more to be said. First of all, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to poke fun at people for not having mastered the English language, especially since you can find merchandise pasted with equally ridiculous slogans all over the states. What's funny are the instances of confusion and error.

More importantly, I think all this begs the big question: what makes Western culture (and especially American culture) seem so cool here? What makes my little middle-school friend show me his American shirt with pride, and what makes his friends assume that United Colors of Bennetton is an American company just because it's the height of style here? I don't know, but I do think the result is not as terrible as some people think. This is not because I am an advocate for spreading Western culture around the globe -- on the contrary, it seems to me that the parts of Western culture that are exported are usually the worst. The reason it's not so bad in my eyes (and rather interesting in fact) is that never do the adopted aspects of foreign culture ever wipe out what is here -- there is always some sort of mixing or adaptation.

One place to see this is in pizza. Besides a few restaurants that sell it the way Americans know it, most pizza here is essentially an entirely different food. They are little round bits of dough no wider than 6 inches in diameter, on which is usually just one ingredient: tomato, lamb, chicken, or other options -- each one costs about 10 cents, so you buy a whole pile if you want a meal. The cheese pizzas (no sauce, just cheese and spices) are shaped like boats to keep in the cheese -- so now the appearance and ingredients are totally distinct from the original imported form, yet it's still a "pizza".

More evidence is found in music. I have heard at least a few other expats here lamenting the state of Arabic Pop, saying that all it does is ape the Western styles. Now, at some level they're right: the huge amount of imitation (as opposed to innovation) going on in the music seems regrettable, and yet, when you listen to the radio here, you could never mistake one of the songs for a Western Pop song -- something distinctly Arabic remains, to a greater or lesser degree. (Except, of course, when they are playing Brian Adams or Celine Dion, whom I heard described by one expat wit as the "national singers of Syria.") Another thing to keep in mind is that incorporating from Western music is not something new to the music of this area -- in the seminar I took last year on Middle Eastern Music one of the "overarching themes" drilled into my head was the continual willingness of musicians here over history to borrow instruments and styles from other cultures.

I got a chance to think about all this when about a month ago I saw a Lebanese rap group in concert. The whole thing was somewhat laughable: in terms of their clothing and body language, the 4 members of the group seemed to be copying exactly from the look of American Hip-hop. Gold chains were all over the place; the tall guy had dreds; the short guy was wearing Fubu pants. I was especially disappointed with the beats they used, which were the most canned, formulaic, and uninteresting hip-hop beats you've ever heard. Although I didn't understand much more than the choruses of each song, I was also not impressed with the apparent quality of their lyrics. Nevertheless, I felt a glimmer of hope for these guys and for the genre of Arab Rap. No matter how the form and surface may be a carbon-copy of the imported genre, the words they were saying are all their own -- and that is the real substance. So maybe give all the Arab rappers a decade or two or three and I'm sure something will come of it that's more their own.

I think it's important to not ignore the aspects of culture that are borrowing from here and there, even when it makes that culture come closer to resembling whatever may disgust us of Western culture. Under the surface, beyond the marketing and commercialism, I sense there's something new there, even if we can't quite yet understand it.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Anti-Mehlis Demonstration

(written 10/31)
I had claimed at first that this wasn’t a political blog, but here I go posting a somewhat political post. I’ve been feeling the pressure from the non-stop news about Syria – I want to get my take on issues up here before they become totally obsolete. So here’s my story about last week’s Syria news, the demonstration in Damascus.

On the morning of October 24, I was taking a servees (microbus) to the center of the city to run an errand. There were people in the streets, carrying signs, waving flags – I was immediately reminded of an email I had read the night before from the US embassy saying that there were reports of a demonstration planned for today, and that Americans should avoid downtown. But I had forgotten this (whoops!), and there I was downtown, … and, … well, I just couldn’t resist. What a great opportunity to talk to people and see what they are thinking.

When I finished my errand, I started out walking from Abu Romane, following the scattered folks who were following a big crowd moving a few hundred meters ahead of us. The wide street I was on was largely empty; I sidled up next to some high school boys walking and carrying flags to start a conversation.

Before I approached these boys, I had considered introducing myself as Canadian today, despite the fact that I’ve never once felt threatened here on account of my nationality. I had, after all, been warned not to come here – I was a bit scared. At the last minute, however, I decided against it. Partly because I’m no good at lying, and partly because that would ruin one of my goals – not only am I here to get to know Syrians, I also want to be an example of an American separate from his government.

I asked them about the demonstration, what’s the purpose, why they came, etc. Of course I knew what the purpose of the demonstration was, but I wanted to hear it from them. They proved to be a pretty lousy bunch. Only one of them actually spoke to me – the others acted too cool to even greet me. From the one who talked to me, I learned that all high schools had been canceled today because of the demonstration. He could tell me that it was against America and Israel, but when I asked about Mehlis, he didn’t even know who that was. Not very impressive. My conversation with this guy faded and then eventually trailed off.

I kept walking, turned right after the park towards Baghdad St.. The big group in front of me met and joined an even bigger group at a large traffic circle with a big fountain in the middle (it turns purple at night) – this was the center of the demonstration, where it remained for the next 2 hours or so. I took up a post by the side of the road a few meters from where the thick crowd began. At this point I was still a little bit scared – what is the deal actually with me being here – am I in danger?

What did this thing look like? Well, there were indeed a lot of people there. The entire traffic circle (it’s big) was filled to the brim, and the crowd spread out into the 6 or so streets that feed the circle as well. Still, I would estimate the number as far lower than the 100,000 reported by official Syrian news. I’m no expert, but it didn’t seem to me to be much bigger than the crowd we had in Philly on Feb. 15 2003 against the Iraq war buildup – and that was supposed to be 10,000 or 20,000.

Generally, to me it looked like any peaceful political demonstration I’ve seen. There were many signs, in Arabic, French and English, along with lots of Syrian flags and the necessary Hafizs and Bashars. From loudspeakers were coming the speech of some official speaker. There were also scattered groups of people doing some call-and-response chanting. There was of course a military presence, but much less than I expected. Lots of young folks were there (as mentioned, no school today!) but there was also a significant presence of adults, who seemed to be coming from different parts of society.

As I stood there leaning up against a wall by the side of the street, looking things over, I was greeted by a group of 3 men, probably in their 30s or 40s. Judging from their clothes, they were blue-collar workers of some kind. Ghazi, Shadi, and Khalid. They were friendly and welcoming, and of course somewhat thrilled at finding an American here – and what’s more one who speaks “al-lugha al-mazboota,” (the correct language) as Shadi called it, i.e., spoken Arabic and not Fusha or MSA.

This day for me at the demonstration was a personal language breakthrough. I spoke only Arabic with the people I met. Because so many foreigners only learn written Arabic, finding someone who speaks their normal language (not fluently, yet) seems to be a real treat for people here. I can feel them open up to me right away.

After we talked together for a while, Ghazi, Shadi, and Khalid linked their arms in mine and swept me into the crowd. There was somebody they wanted me to meet. They addressed this person as Ustaz, literally “professor,” but also a general term of respect for any white-collar type. This guy was just that – a respectable middle-aged white-collar type. We talked in Arabic for a while, and something of a crowd gathered around – not more than 12 people or so. Everyone was rather curious about me – I had trouble fitting asking questions to them in edgewise. They were glad to hear that I am against Bush and his aggression, but when it came to the Mehlis report, I was impressed with their restraint. They asked me about it and I replied “shoo bya`rafnee?” – a slangy phrase meaning “how would I know?” That is quite how I felt, having not read the report or any in-depth analysis of it. One of those present asked again, pressing me for an answer, but a chorus of voices quickly silenced him, letting me keep my silence on the issue.

Someone (I can’t really remember who) decided that that was enough conversation for me, and so everyone dispersed – a few thanked me and shook my hand. Ghazi, Shadi, Khalid suggested that I join the group of youth dancing in a circle, but I turned them down in favor of walking a little. Together we worked our way around the large traffic circle, squeezing between the crowd. Again I was impressed with their not wanting to take advantage of me as an American at an anti-American protest: After one of them suggested taking me to a TV camera, I said “ma biddee” – “I don’t want to.” That was that, end of discussion, they weren’t going to take me. We traded phone numbers and parted ways not long afterwards.

I continued my stroll around the perimeter of the traffic circle, and as I took a pause to take in the scene in front of me, a late-middle-aged guy (suit and tie) started up a conversation with me. We spoke rather briefly, and loudly as well, since we were standing near one of the loudspeakers amplifying the official speech. At one point he leaned forward and said into my ear, “I love the American people, but Bush is going to destroy the world!” Again and again this phrase or sentiment is repeated to me: “I love the American people.” Sometime I should go as a Canadian, if only to see if people still say that to someone who is not an American. My gut tells me, however, that most people really do mean it.

Things were getting a little crowded in the direction I was going, so I headed off on a side street and approached the demonstration from a different direction. I was next greeted by a group of students – some university and some high school. Again, very surprised that I was speaking Arabic. Having seen that school had been let out and that some teachers were shooing kids here and there, I asked these students whether it was required that they come here. They were absolutely adamant that it was not required, and that they were present of their own accord. [More on this topic later. And a side question for anyone reading: how could I have asked them that question without asking it? I.e., so as not to arouse their suspicions that I was accusing their rally of being fabricated?] One of the girls went on to say how much she loved her president: “Bashar habeeb elbee” – “Bashar is the love of my heart!” The young guys there backed her up saying it was great that he was so young. The one I ended up talking with was Annan, a Palestinian currently studying at a private medical university in Damascus. He was very aware of the issues of the day, but I did not discuss with him long, because I wanted to run back home and grab my camera to make some documentary evidence.

On the way there, not far from the protest, I heard a call from the side of the road: “Hello! How are you?” This happens fairly often: when kids see I am a foreigner they sometimes call out to me with whatever English they know. I’ve discovered this is a great way of starting conversations – I answer them back in Arabic and then we are on a roll. This ended up being a really nice conversation with about 7 boys in their early years of high school. These guys were very nice and very much aware of the purpose of the rally and the events behind it. Like the previous group of students I’d met, most definitely in full support of their government. They were rather curious about the anti-Bush types in America, and our conversation often left politics to just talk about life and culture. Once their teachers passed by, telling them to do something (I couldn’t catch what – were they telling them to go to the center of the protest?), but they excused themselves by saying they were talking to an American. By the time our conversation ended, the crowd at the circle was thinning out, so I gave up on getting my camera and wandered around the premises some more as it cleared out.

I’m glad I ended up downtown that morning and that I decided to go. I’m glad I had a lot of conversations with different sorts of people, and I’m really glad that Syrians can distinguish between Mr. Bush and me. What I really wonder about is the all the people who were *not* at the demonstration. I’m not saying that all those absent are in favor of the Mehlis report, but naturally everyone there was against it. How many people sit at home, watch BBC along with the Syrian propaganda news shows, and ask, “well, I wonder if our government did do something wrong?” But if people do think that, there is no place here to ask such questions.

It’s been a more than a week now since the protest. I’ve done some more reading about the Mehlis report, and faster than I can keep up with, international politics is moving on: The UN issued a resolution against Syria on Nov. 1st. I’m now going to try to boil down my feelings about the demonstration and the whole Mehlis report into a big, fat, blanket statement that perhaps fits both situations: The way things appear can keep people from looking honestly at their content.

In terms of the demonstration, I will refer to an article (within a blog post) of a Fulbrighter (Roland McKay) who was there: He gives some good description, but pretty much writes off the demonstration as a propaganda stunt. He’s largely right: the fact that students got out of school and were encouraged or required by their teachers to go does not make the protest seem very grassroots. Hence, the Assad government seems even more weak and desperate for support. What this line of thinking can miss is that most of the people I talked to there knew what they were talking about, had some real legitimate grievances about US aggression, and support their government. The fact that the protest was rather stage-managed hides the fact that most people there (excluding the first group of oblivious flag-wavers I met) were serious and passionate about their concerns.

The problem I see with the Mehlis report situation is that it has never been separated from the aggression of the United States. However true and unbiased it may be, the report will always be tied to the US/French/British escalation of this issue. It has seemed to me that this escalation is not based on the search for truth but rather on the goal of eliminating the current Syrian government. Thus, the Syrians will always have excuses – “The report is political!” “Mehlis is Bush’s puppet!” – and will not have to actually take stock of the potential criminality in their government. The fact that the report has been politicized by the US (whether it’s content is politicized or not) will hide from so many Syrians and other defenders against US aggression the truths that could be found in it.

interesting article: the Jews of Syria

I found this article upended a lot of my assumptions and stereotypes. Check it out: