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.

Monday, January 02, 2006

"The Case for Contamination"

I just had a great time reading "The Case for Contamination", an article by Kwame Anthony Appiah in this week's New York Times Magazine. It blew my mind. One of those things you read that seems to express clearly everything that's been running wildly around in your head, while at the same time saying so much more.

I got into a discussion with some friends who were lamenting the presence of Western Christmas carols being sung in a Damascus church on Christmas Eve. They fear the infringement of these songs will wipe out the much older singing that goes on in some of the churches here. I was arguing against this, not in favor of the christmas carols (no!), but against our deciding what music these folks should be singing. I argued clumsily, but Mr. Appiah here has argued most skillfully, as well as bringing up a lot of other fascinating ideas.

I encourage anyone who has found what I've written interesting to check it out. The link should be permanent now (thanks upyernoz!), so if it stops working let me know and I'll see what I can do.

Please keep commenting and keep emailing me! Thanks.

An Update for the New Year

2006 is upon us. My life continues much as it has been. I'm still focusing on language; much of my time is spent listening to and thinking about the various radio programs that my teacher is using to teach the language. I'm still spending time volunteering with al-Hilaal al-Ahmar, and there's also time left over to see friends.

I'm writing this post mainly to respond to a question that a few friends have asked me; one I think people in general might be curious about. Here's the gist of it: "So, this blog is fine and good and all, but are you actually happy there?"

It's a good question, and my short answer is yes. There is a lot to be excited about here: I'm learning a lot and making a lot of good and true connections with people here. I can be made happy pretty easily. After a successful evening spent at my desk with my books, I usually end up just as thrilled as after a really great conversation with an old friend. When I told one of my cousins this she replied, "You Nerd!" -- she's right. (I'm also satisfied to now be able to say "old friend".)

Nevertheless, there have been plenty of times when I've been feeling lonely, bored, and aimless. Sometimes this is from frustration with myself for sitting around all day; sometimes this is from a discouraging day with the language. Other times its probably just from being away from home and on my own for the longest period so far in my life.

One thing that I think has contributed to these spells of discouragement is that my ability to hold a decent conversation in Arabic is no longer a surprise as thrilling and sustaining as it was at first. I'm still making good progress in the language, but it's less of a breakthrough moment when I can talk to people. Now my challenge is to find good things to talk about and to put my language to good use.

Thankfully, these periods of feeling down are a minority of the time. Most of the time I find my self with a lot of productive and fun things to do, and if not that, a lot of interesting things to think about. I am happy to be here in Damascus.

Let's all give our strongest prayer for peace in the coming year.