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,



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear friend
I had great pleasure in reading your blog. I hope you will continue your blog after you return to the US. Because I am sure you have plenty of stories to tell about Syria. But I have a comment on your last post.
You are right when you talk about the similarity in human nature. It seems you spent the majority of your time talking to the common (the taxi driver, the grocery shop man, etc). From my point of view there are no differences between the common all over the world. There is no difference between a redneck American and a Chinese peasant. The differences appear in the elite of each society. I think spending eight months in Syria will give you a good picture about the country, but not a complete one. Your impression of Syria is positive, but I think the reason for that is your personality. You came to Damascus with an open mind, and for some reason you looked for the positive side of things. I hope you will be able to convey these good things about the Arabs to the American society in an effort to change that stupid stereotyping of Arabs (those Arabs are no more then bunch of nomads living in the middle ages)
Keep up the good work, and again thank for the nice Blog.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hail and farewell, Rich,
These last comments struck me forcefully in several ways. First, when you return home you DO need to continue this blog, at least for a little while. You must be alert for and mindful of "re-entry shock". IT is something everyone who has gone to foreign ports and fallen in love experiences upon returning to the familiarity of home. IT is something worth writing about because it clarifies and solidifies your experience.
Second, your experience as a lone voice in a sea of prejudice (which everyone in your situation is), made me think of two things: first, the Army's new recruiting mantra - "be an army of one", and second the delightful day I spent this past week with your friend Ahmedjad. Your mom brought him to me on Friday and we spent half the day hauling logs I had cut the day before up the hill to my woodpile, after which we inspected the bees, found a queen being "balled" (i.e., killed) by the bees in the hive and we tried to rescue her. We got to talking at length about the power of an individual to alter the direction of popular opinion in the face of CNN, Al Jezirah and TV. He did not have quite the optimism I have about the significance of one person's voice in a sea of schooled hostility, but I assured him that even one voice, spoken daily, had an inexorable effect on the people who heard it. Your experience there is testimony to that, as was, I think, my experience in India so many years ago. If you don't exercise your voice then you do, indeed, abandon the world to the powers of ignorance and darkness. True connections between cultures have always been born from young men and women who courageously venture from the security of their homes and families (hence, ad-venture) and leap into the jaws of the lion so to speak: you in Syria, Ahmedjad to the USA, Uncle Dan to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan. You Do have to be young and naive and foolish to do these things, but hopefully you can retain that naivete and foolishness well into later years. You have done a good thing there AND the honey was spectacular. Bring home more!!!Unkle Nunkle

8:26 PM  
Blogger upyernoz said...


it's been a pleasure reading your blog. you're really lucky to have had so much time in syria. i was only able to go for 2 weeks as a tourist, and that was enough to make me want to return some day.

drop me an email if you're gonna end up in the philadelphia area (upyernoz [at] yahoo [dot] com)

11:32 PM  
Anonymous سام هو said...

Hello, there!
I dropped by tonight (why tonight, of all nights, I shan't know) to get a taste of your blog. Let me start off, if you don't mind, by saying that you are a very good writer, and I do like seeing your input about this 'culture shock', so to speak, thing going on that baffles those on both sides of the barrier.
I shall return to read more, if not the entire blog.

6:25 AM  
Blogger RCC said...

... for more:
-r c c

6:20 PM  
Blogger Omar al-muhajr said...

Hi Rcc,

Are you Abu wilyam? is that your new blog?

8:46 AM  
Blogger Sourie said...

I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog. This article is the most accurtae I've read about Syrians scripted by a non-syrian. I hate using the word foreigner to be honest with you. It's sounds so intrusive. I was also back home a month ago. I wish I met you there. My blog has entries in both Arabic and English. Hope you like.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Aidara BilQis said...


it is august 2009 and I am just now coming across your blog. i am an american citizen determined to learn to speak arabic, engage with my local community through volunteer work, and learn about arab cultures in the middle east, starting with syria.i learn best in groups, not in private sessions. would you mind sharing info. with me regarding great arabic lanaguage schools in damascus or aleppo? i have a number of other questions to ask regarding syrian culture, life in damascus. would you mind contacting me via email at Thank you!

11:46 PM  
Blogger Salma said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Salma said...

yes, i know how it feels when u don't feel that its right to generalize but then u CAN'T ignore the fact that there IS a pattern that keeps repeating itself so obviously in arab and muslim cultures.. as u said urself, they were teached to copy-paste and do nothing more (reffering to your mentioning of how syrian students memorize their books from cover to cover). the less there is individuality in a society the more people will be like robots. and individuality is the result of NOT accepting that which is taken for granted by others. it is to say: this is not a fulfilling answer.. i need to find a more satisfying answer........ as for "safety" in syria, i think i'd like to turn ur attention to something: people here are so sexually repressed and u can tell that just by walking in the streets (and being a woman or a creature with boobs of course.. lol). i am a woman and i walk A LOT AND A LOT in damascus. i go everywhere by either walking or biking.. and IM NOT EXAGERATING when i say once out of every 5 times there is a man that tries to follow me or to whisper asking that i have sex with him, etc etc. and then, when this doesnt happen, there is the very sexual & horny looks they give me. it feels very uncomfortable for me to just walk in the street because i feel im being WATCHED. lol.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Salma said...

if i move to take off my jacket they look at me as if i was a model performing a striptease dance. oh and when im eating something or if im adjusting my hair, they're watching porno.. lollz.. .. there is this definition of "Safety" that makes syria and all third world countries that suffer from deep sexual repression not safe at all. .... yes i can walk back home at 2:00 and 5:00 after midnight in the street and not get "kidnapped" or robbed or killed but no matter when during the day im walk in the street i will not be feeling comfortable receiving all these looks. its like these people are going to burst because of so much "horniness"/sexual desires accumulating.. in america they're sexually repressed too -most ppl are obsessed with sex and naked bodies, lolz- but its more out in the open.. no one is going to burst there.. they're doing it and at they're at peace with it..

1:52 PM  
Blogger Salma said...

arabs are very scared of their sexuality. this is why women wear conservative clothes/ head wraps. and by the way arabs are very emotional.. this has a cool side, ppl are warm and helping. but also it means that ppl will be too warm and "too helping" and they would try to interfere with your business and your privacy ALL THE TIME (but they call that being nice to you.. being "Warm".). there DEFINITELY is a "copy paste" pattern amongst syrians because they all obey the rules all the time. from a young child in a family or school to a senior man doing his job the way "its supposed to be done". no one tries to come up with creative alternatives to anything. creative syrians will be appreciated abroad, but in syria no one cares. people have time to talk all day about their neighbours' problems and their friends' lives giving judments here and there, but dont u ever think they have time for your silly un-achieveable ideas about renovating that part of the street/neighbourhood or about environmental activities. they dont have time for that, okay? there are much more important things. the turkish drama airing on mbc is much more of a priority for example. .

1:53 PM  
Blogger Salma said...

..... so just Dont tell me its cultural difference. cultural differences are beautiful, they are what makes this world rich and colorful and they are what makes interaction an easy playful part of life.... but this is not part of the cultural difference.. being short-sighted and giving too much importance to appearance(thats u who talked about that one, thank u very much, lolz) is not part of any culture. it is part of an immature way of thinking and seeing....... and my last word on this is: dont feel guilty about having "negative points of views" about things or people and judging is not wrong. unless judjing is a CONDEMNATION and a final verdict, judgement is a way for u to separate things from one another, to know that there IS a difference. u cant know better if u do not judge at all.

1:53 PM  
Blogger Salma said...

and there IS something common that will unite us together someday, it is HUMANITY. this is not false hope as u called it. u are an "american" and i am a "syrian" person (or thats what they told us we're called), but i dont see it that way. THEY do, and they can very much choose to stay seprated from one another the way they are. i choose to be human, not syrian. it is a CHOICE. but most people do not choose.. i have a heart that sees through yours and i can make a difference because of that. we all can. but it starts as something incredibly small.. a seed.. just keep on planting the seeds wherever u go. just be there and be yourself :) bless u.

1:54 PM  
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