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,