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.



Anonymous Rachel said...

your blog has beeen so interesting to read. I stumbled across it when i was searching for "syrian clothing" on google and i just read it start to present at 5:30 in the morning here in texas. My great grandfather was syrian and i've always been curious about the culture. your blog has opened my eyes soooooo much to syria, and now im even pondering whether or not i should go after im done with community college. please e-mail me! :) we can talk about syria and how u ended up there. :D
thanks for the great read.

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