Friday, August 05, 2005

Jihad against the word jihad

Its a standing on a soapbox rambling meandinering rant kind of day, very different than my usual post.

Somebody recently sent me this article about how anti-western muslim terrorists are well-educated people who have had opportunites in life, as opposed to the vision that they are lashing out as a result of their lives under oppressive authoritarian regimes. I agree with most of what this article says, and I'm glad my friend was interested enough in it to share it. But it has reminded me that there is a real problem with how the word 'jihad' has come to have one meaning in English and western media while it has a broader, different meaning in Arabic. It drives me nuts when I hear a news anchor say "... a jihad, or holy war, ...". The word has a common meaning of struggle or effort, but the Arabic word has made its way into English with the meaning of "holy war against the West by radical muslim fundamentalists". This article provides an example of this, as David Brooks uses the words "terrorists" and "jihadists" interchangably.

This point sticks with me because nearly every instructor of Arabic I've had has at some point taken time during a class to go on a tangent about how 'jihad' does not mean 'holy war'. I think it is an important point, too, because language influences thought. If we think that there is a built-in provision in Islam for launching a war against your enemies and that it even has its own unique name, we get a much more frightening, violent image of Islam. Every serious muslim I have met here has rushed to make the point that Islam is a peaceful religion and those who act violently in the name of Islam have a twisted and incorrect interpretation of the religion. I hope to spread this idea because I do know people who equate Islam with violence, and ultimately this way of thinking is itself a barrier to peace.

David Brooks suggests this point in his article. If we want a successful policy for change in the Middle East, for democratization and economic liberalization and against destabilizing terrorist organizations, we must think of terrorists, whether they be radical fundamentalists or otherwise, as anomalies on the fringes of their own societies, with a way of thought that is not in accordance with the vast majority of their fellow countrymen.

Syria seems to be particularly lacking in extremist nut jobs. Of the many people I've met and talked to here, of various religions and ethnicities, I have only met one who didn't like Americans. And that was a taxi driver who was upset that he wasn't able to rip me off for about five times what the fare was worth. Everyone else, including the taxi drivers, has been very nice.

With that I step off the soapbox.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Not very Palmyra

Ok I am over being sick, and I did well on the midterms.

Every time I sit down to finish writing about some of the trips I've take around the country, it feels like homework, and I quit before I'm finished. So to get through it, here's a quick and dirty version.

The first trip I made outside of Damascus was to Palmyra. What can I say about it? Before I came to Syria I knew very little about the ancient places that tourists often visit. I had studied politics, modern history, and Islam. I never really have known much about the Babylonians, Phonecians, Romans, or anyone else who had been in the area before the Ottoman Empire, and I can't say that I've taken the time to learn much about them since I've arrived here. Without any detailed knowledge of the history, most ruins start to look the same after a while. My apologies to anyone who is deeply interested in these things and wanted to read my take on them. I wanted to be creative about it, but I have too much else to say and I've had too little time to write. Here is what was going to be the first paragraph of a longer tale of the trip:

I stood there, nearly 100 miles east of Damascus, looking up at the night sky. There were no clouds, and I could see as many stars overhead as I had ever seen. The wind was like a pack of race cars tearing across the desert. The fumes from their engines defracted the light of the stars, making the constellations tremble. Soda cans cut into pinwheel shapes and strung across the front of the Bagdad Cafe spun in resonant harmony with the tumult.

A little thick on the poetry, isn't it? Once you set that standard for yourself, its hard to keep it up. Anyway, that was the scene at a rest stop on the way home from Palmyra, and easily my favorite part of the trip. The rest of the day mostly involved standing under the midday desert sun looking at ruins and trying to listen to a tour guide who spoke too softly and with too thick of an accent to really learn much of anything. Merchants wander the ancient sites trying to sell you soda, headscarves, cheap jewelry, and other odd things. All in all it was fairly interesting, but I'm a lousy source if that's what you're into. Highlights included watching the sunset from a fortress on top of a mountain, feeling a little like Indiana Jones ascending the interior of an old tomb on stairs that no tourist would be permitted to climb in America for fear that they would hurt themselves and sue somebody, and, of course, seeing the night sky from deep in the desert.

Ok, at this point I have renewed hopes about describing Malula and Bosra, both of which I thought were more interesting. Quinetra also deserves a seperate post, but that will be more about politics than travel.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Haases hali mardaan

Sorry for the delay, once again, but I've been sick. I've had a cold, which, ironically, does not go well with the heat. I'm more fortunate than some of my fellow Americans here, one of whom was hospitalized briefly with dysentary. One must be careful where one eats. Call it ejnabi (foreigner) disease. We also sometimes pay ejnabi rates for things like taxis, though I've encountered this problem less than others. In fact, usually when someone discovers that you are foreign (generally because of your poor arabic pronunciation) they are eager to welcome you to the country, ask you where you are from, and sometimes give you special treatment. Tourism helps drive this city, and people know it. They want people to go home and say they had a great time. I know I will, despite the occasional health issues which have recently clouded my thinking.

I've also had midterms, so I've been trying to study through the brain fog. I finshed those up yesterday, and now its the weekend, so il hamdu lilah. I have been working on a few different posts in the background here, but I have yet to complete them, and now, once again, I'm feeling more in need of some rest than the desire to complete my journals. Below I present some continuation from my last post, which I wrote some days ago and just now finished.

Ok, so the American embassy was not at all a friendly place, at least the part I saw. I think I went to the wrong entrance, I later heard there is a cultural attache center across the street that is more welcoming. But when I tried to go to to the main entrance, I found the gate staffed by locals who gruffly asked me who I was there to see and what I wanted. I tried saying that I was an American student here studying for the summer and that I just wanted to drop by the embassy to see what it was like and maybe meet some people. This got me turned away. I've had easier times getting into hip night clubs with selective doormen, and I'm not really all that hip. But I completely understand why our embassy would have this attitude and I don't blame them for it one bit. For the record, this is not the kind of place you can just drop by unannounced.

So I left there and headed east in search of a coffee house. This time it wasn't just to get my fix. I have contacted Joshua Landis, a professor from the University of Oklahoma who is living here in Damascus on a Fulbright scholarship and author of, an excellent collection of essays about Syrian politics and related items. I asked him if he could come speak to the American students from the language institute, which he has agreed to do, but I need to track down a suitable venue. I could possibly try to do this either at the university or at the embassy, but so far these appear to be less than ideal options. He suggested the Rawda coffee house, and after my chilly reception at the embassy, I decided to go have a look at this place to see if it would suffice.

The neighborhood around the embassy is a little more upscale than what I had been used to seeing. Like other areas of Damascus, there is a traffic roundabout with a gradiose fountain in the center. Unlike many other areas of Damascus I have seen, the homes here have real yards, with grass and trees, and the cars are new, clean, and undamaged. It felt like a suburban neighborhood in America. This is in fact not the only part of town I know of like this. The neighborhood north of my usual coffee house is rather nice also, and I hear that there are others. Not to diminish the appeal of living in Bab Touma - indeed there is a mystical charm to living here - but I think if I ever come back for an extended stay, I may look for an apartment in one of these other locations.

After walking down the length of Rawda street, where the Rawda coffee house is not, I stopped to ask a man in front of a store for directions. I had a map with me which I pulled out so he could point the way. Although I understand all of the Arabic for turn left, then right, and go straight two blocks, the roundabouts and streets that can point in any direction call for more details in the instructions than I can sometimes entirely comprehend. I'm told that maps are uncommon in Syria, which may explain why a group of children gathered around me and the man helping me, who was cheerfully describing much more about the neighborhood between there and the Rawda coffee house than was necessary. Or these children may have gathered around because I was ejnabi. The kids I have talked to on the street are proud to show off their English skills, which I have generally found to be superior to their elder compatriots, even in parts of the country that have less than adequate educational facilities.

Anyhow, the directions were true and I found my way to Maqhua Rawda. It was larger than other cafes I had visited and was populated almost entirely by men. Most of them were playing backgammon or chess, the backgammon players loudly slamming their chips on the board as they made their moves, the chess players sitting in quiet contemplation, patiently considering the board while dragging slowly on a nargile pipe. Many were wearing full length robes and traditional headdress, which you will see here and there while traveling around in Damascus, but rarely so many in one place. I had the sense that these men were from all over the Middle East and were here on business.

I stayed there for several hours, reading texts for class, eavesdropping on conversations that I hardly understood, and since it was early afternoon and I had been walking in the sun, drinking lemonade, rather than coffee. Places like this are nice, but I don't think it will be a good spot to have the students meet Dr. Landis. It's too noisy, and a little hard to find.

Honestly, I have more posts in progress. Coming soon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Keeping my cool

Ahhh the computer lab at school. Air conditioned, free, and I don't have to walk on the life-threatening streets of Damascus to get to it. Well, at least not if I come here right after class, which is only sometimes possible, and even then it closes at 2:30 in the afternoon, so I only get about an hour to use it when I do.

Today I don't feel like creative writing. Let's call it a holiday - this is approximately the midpoint of my stay here in Syria. I know, the story I've written has barely placed me in the town. Worry not, more tales are to come. The sad truth is that the classes are very intense and I often don't have time to do anything worth writing home about, let alone do the writing. On the other hand, I've been holding back a few stories for when I'm feeling nice and prolific. Today is not that day. Today I feel free form, today I liberate the delete key from the keyboard. Its not just me, some of my friends and I have been cracking under the heat en masse, passing through regular phases of irritable, frustrated, elated, content, and around again. Its not that classes are too difficult, or the unbearable heat, the frequent stomach ailments from foreign microcritters, the linguistic frustrations with the locals, or the sense that when you walk down the street you're playing Frogger with your life, but all these things together are sometimes very exhausting. This is balanced out by large amounts of coffee consumed at the one nearby cafe that has an air conditioner. And after a long day, if I'm really beat from it, there's a place down the street where I can have a 500ml beer for about a dollar.

Shouts out to all who have commented from various locales, like Sue from Mom's work, Jamil in France, Paul of the world-famous PK and J Show, 'free to be' up in Akron, Jessica the mailroom veteran, Dana out in CA (or do I sense another move? hmm) and of course my old pal anonymous - man, we go way back. Greets also to all the other family and friends reading out there. Also cheers to everyone back at The Library, you know who you are, and if you've forgotten, its time to go home. See you all in September.

Some people who don't know have asked for a little more explanation of who I am and why I am here, so here goes. I'm a student from The Ohio State University majoring in political science, Middle East studies, and Arabic. I'm here in Damascus for the summer taking intensive Arabic classes in the hope of rocketing my skills toward fluency. That, in fact, is going fairly well. I plan on going to grad school (somewhere) after this to study (something.) Its too hard to tell at this point. Someone asked if I was on any kind of special grant or something, but sadly no. I'm paying for this the same way I pay for all of school; student loans and academic scholarships. However, this summer is not too expensive, despite the costs of travel, because everything is so cheap here. Well, except for the air conditioned cafe, where an iced cappuccino costs 150 lira (about 3 dollars), but for that I get to spend 3 or 4 hours almost every day doing schoolwork while waiting for the temperature outside to drop down to the mid 90s.

Well, I'm off to the American embassy - I've got some elbows to rub.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Language barriers in the living room

Hussein and I walked through the courtyard and into an entry where a door was standing open. A woman inside stood and welcomed us in. She looked as if she could be a grandmother, but her hair was still jet black. She wore a purple house dress and plastic sandals. The room where she had been sitting was a living room with an attached kitchen, seperated by a high archway in the shape of the upper half of an ace of spades. The home was clearly Christian, with crosses on the wall, pictures of the virgin Mary with child, a calendar with biblical verses written in Arabic, and so forth. Also, the woman wore a gold cross on her neck. A television was showing what appeared to be a soap opera.

She clicked the TV off and she and Hussein began talking in the colloquial Damscene dialect of Arabic, quite different than the variety he had been using to talk to me. I understood my introduction to her, her name is Haifa, but beyond that I really couldn't understand most of what they said. Scholars of Arabic will tell you that the Syrian dialect is very close to 'pure' literary Arabic, but to this I say horseshoes and hand grenades. The sentence structures, conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns are similar, but many words are completely different and verbs are employed in a different way. I studied Syrian colloquial the quarter before I had left for Damascus, but I mostly only learned the local ways of saying hello, goodbye, and some other pleasantries. This conversation was moving too fast and employing too many words that I had never heard before.

After some discussion I was brought to see the room I was being offered. We passed through a large formal living room and dining room and up a flight of stairs that led only to what would become my room. It was nice, as large as the apartment I had had in Ohio, divided in two sections by an arch similar to the one between the kitchen and living room. On one end was a bed over which was a ceiling fan, on the other was a small desk and chair. One entire wall was open to the outside by windows with neither glass nor screens. Through them could be seen the central courtyard of the house, where there was modern outdoor plastic chairs and a bench swing. The courtyard had obviously been much larger at one time, but was now divided by a high wall that was added later to make two houses out of one. This wall also divided what had once been the central fountain, which now served as a flower bed. The original courtyard must have been spectacular, some forty feet on each side, and it was still very nice on this half. I have since discovered that most homes in Bab Touma have an open central garden like this one.

Haifa explained the deal for the room, and Hussein tried to semi-translate it for me into standard Arabic with some English. But his English is more limited than my Arabic, so to ensure the arrangements were clearly understood, he called a colleague on his cell phone and we passed the phone back and forth so the woman on the other end could translate for us. The agreement was that I would pay 8000 Syrian pounds a month for the rent, plus an additional 10000 if I wanted to eat with the family and enjoy free access to whatever I found in the refrigerator. I thought the second figure sounded a little expensive, but I ultimately determined that this was a pretty good deal and paid it. The total comes to a little under $340 USD a month.

It turns out that her cooking is quite good, so the only time I eat out is when getting together with friends, and even then a good dinner only costs about 300 SP, or about 6 dollars, with good service that expects very little for a tip. Meanwhile, at home I am served coffee and tea throughout the day, I never cook, and I never do the dishes. I tried to do them once, but she wouldn't have it. Meals come much later than they do in America, lunch is at about 2 p.m. and dinner can be as late as 10:30 or 11 o'clock. In between are servings of fruit of all varieties, which also functions as dessert after dinner. There is always a tray of cheeses, butter, olives, and preserves in the refrigerator, which I continue to have with pita bread for breakfast, like I did at the hotel my first morning here. In fact pita bread is a necessary part of every meal, the fork is often used only to scoop things into the pita bread, or is not used at all.

When I first met Haifa I thought that she might live alone. I could not be more wrong. There is also her husband, George, and their youngest daughter, Rasha. They have two other children living in Damascus, both married, one with two young kids, and they all visit several times a week. (Their eldest son is away studying opthamology in France.) There is their 'fifth daughter', Natalie, from Algeira, and three other girls living there, Katia and Sosan, and Mariam who has moved out and been replaced by an American grad student, Nicole. The neighbors also visit frequently, as do many other friends. Yet the house is large enough to handle all of this without feeling too crowded, and its really quite nice to have a social scene in one part of the house and my own private room in another. I can come and go from this as I like, there is never any sense that I am obligated to stay and socialize with guests until they leave.

The best part of this is that I am learning the local dialect whenever I spend time at home. Only a few there speak any English - Rasha, Katia and Sosan, and obviously Nicole - so I am forced to speak Arabic most of the time. Haifa and Natalie speak French almost as often as they do Arabic, so I'm picking some of that up too. Sometimes when I don't understand an Arabic word, they say it in French, and I'll understand it because it just sounds like the English equivalent with a French accent. Still, much of the time the converstaion leaves me behind in the linguistic dust. With that many people around, they can't always stop and explain things that I don't get. Certain topics have a vocabulary I don't know at all, and this can be very isolating. My best conversations are one-on-one. When there is a group, all I can do is sit and listen and try to get as much as I can.

All-in-all, a great place to live. I've heard some stories from other students in the program, and I think I'm very lucky. I will miss these people when I leave.

In upcoming entries: Palmyra, Maalula, Beirut, and of course, Damascus.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Finding home

I awoke in the middle of the night, time unknown. The feeling was a bit like Christmas morning - once I was awake and aware that I was on the other side of the planet, I couldn't go back to sleep. I looked out the window of my hotel room to see a much more peaceful street scene than the midday chaos when I first arrived in Damascus. The cars had been replaced by alley cats, the birds by bats, the heat by wind, and the sun by the moon. From there I could see most of the city, all the way to Mount Qassiyoun, where the district called Al-Mohajreen covers part of one side, like trees up to the frost line.

I stared at this for a time, taking it all in, when a lone voice in the distance began singing a long tone over a loudspeaker. Other voices joined in from different directions. Within a few minutes the entire town sang in an unsynchronized ghostly chorus. Think opening sequence of '2001: A space odyssey', just before the apes get violent. This is how the call to prayer sounds to the unexperienced. I was expecting before coming here that I would hear a single voice, loud and clear, reciting the adhan but instead it is a cacophonous blend of distant voices, all starting at slightly different moments with different tempos and styles. It is surprisingly easy to get used to hearing this throughout the day.

After a short shower - I find that I'm too tall for many things in this town, even though the locals are of a normal height - I went to the top floor of the hotel where there is a restaurant with wide open windows to a nice view of the city. I ordered what the menu called fitoor sharqi, the traditional eastern breakfast of olives, slices of crumbly white cheese, and pita bread. This is served with 'Turkish' coffee, which makes an espresso look like watered down decaf. I've gotten very used to this dark, gritty, rocket fuel of a beverage. I believe I will have to go through some kind of caffeine rehab when I get back to the states.

Later that morning I went to the university to attend an orientation meeting and take my placement test for the Arabic program. I thought I did horribly on the test, but so did everyone else. I placed into the middle of three levels, which turns out to be perfect. Class is a substantial challenge but not overwhelming. I will save my description of university life for another time.

After the test a man from the student affairs office took me to check out the homes of families who had offered to provide housing. We went to Bab Touma, the old part of Damascus. Very, very old. Old as in Testament. Like the Romans came here and said, wow this place is freakin old. You get the point. We had to get out of the car to walk down the narrow alleys, turning left and right enough for me to not know my way out if he had abandoned me. In fact, it has taken me many days to learn my way around here, and I still sometimes get lost.

The walls are consistently grey and dusty. They are mostly two stories high, the second story often supporting balconies that, when facing one another, leave only a narrow gap for light to get through. Bab Touma is the Christian quarter, so within this area there are some mosques, but these are greatly outnumbered by churches. There are some niches in the walls that house small altars to the Virgin Mary, with the remnants of many candles hanging from the wire fences which protect these shrines from less pious hands. There are also some small shops - anachronisms like cell phone stores, photography studios, and tiny convenience stores, each about the width of a single-car garage door. And of course, there is the internet 'cafe' (sans coffee) in which I presently sit.

There is a cafe that does indeed serve coffee, al fresca, in a courtyard next door to a church somewhere in the middle of all this. A gateway leads from the alley to the cafe, and in the back of the courtyard there are doors to a few homes. As we walked up to the gate from the alley, Hussein, the university rep who is much nicer than the image that may appear in some of my readers' minds upon seeing his name, turned to me and said that there was a place inside that may be suitable. I looked up at the sign over the gate. Among many other smaller words, both western and Arabic, I saw one English word in large yellow letters on the dark green background - "Columbus".

I told Hussein that this place would be just fine.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Getting real

Dear reader, life in Damascus has consumed my journal writing abilities, and I do apologize. By the end of the next post, I will be living in my current residence (which is very nice, by the way.) Afterwards I shall write on subjects, rather than days, as chronology is no longer a suitable organizational criteria. Time simply does not function the same here as it does back in the states.

But first, a little more about how I came to be in my present situation. In the last episode, your humble narrator had just been introduced to the exhilirating world of Damascus traffic and brought to the entryway to the Hotel al-Majed. The lobby of this hotel is as small as a living room, but decorated like a palace, and brightly lit. Green and white arabesque patterns cover the floor and walls. The staff, though quite friendly, spoke very little English. I had no problem asking for a room, but explaining that Damascus University had one reserved for me was too complicated to get across without confusion. Try saying it without knowing any word for 'reserved'.

So I was brought up to a room and was asked if it was to my liking. I said that it was (an air conditioned tent and a cot would have been acceptable, but this was much nicer), so I was brought back down to the lobby to register for the room. The clerk began some paperwork, but we were having some communication problems about the details, so I decided to look in my bag again for a phone number for anyone from the University. I noticed two guys sitting on a couch who looked very much like American college students, and I asked them if indeed they were. I discovered that one of them was the other student from the institute that was on my flight, the one who had been met at the airport, quickly shuttled through immigration, driven to the hotel, and given a briefcase full of handy orientation materials while I had been left behind to fend for myself. I have yet to understand how they found him but not me, and it was nearly a week before I got my briefcase. I'm not sure who the other one was, but he apparently had already been living in Damascus and was drawing a small map for the other one. He kept his voice low and ignored me, as somehow I was undeserving of his assitance. Anyhow, the two of them had little to say to me and were rather unsympathetic about my situation.

So while I sat on another couch not talking to the two unknown Americans, four of my Ohio State friends walked into the lobby. This is the very moment the whole experience turned around for the positive. One of them with much better Arabic helped clear things up with the front desk for me. We all talked about our travels getting there, what they had done so far, and made some plans for the evening. It was the most English I had spoken in four days.

After some rest time in my room, we met again in the lobby. We went walking around the neighborhood and they pointed out where a few things were, but it was still a little too overwhelming to grasp a sense of direction. The streets in the evening in Damascus are as busy as the State Fair on a weekend when the weather has been perfect. Or like High Street at OSU on the first day of classes, Autumn quarter. I'll have to get into the street scene more on another post, there's just too much to say about it to put here now.

We ate at a great restaurant called Haretna in the Old City. Again, I'll have to talk about dining in another post. For now, let me just say that we were there for nearly three hours, a perfectly normal practice in Damascus.

We finished the evening at an apartment that one of us had already secured. We went to the rooftop to find a view of most of the city. The air was much more acceptable, cool and breezy. Throughout the city you can spot blue and green neon lights - blue for churches, green for mosques. One of us, Heather, has a boyfriend back home who is worried she will cheat on him while she's here, so she has made a large sign that says "I love Jimmie" on it and is collecting pictures of herself with it. We took the picture of her with the sign and city behind her, then we all took pictures of each other. I'm sorry to say I didn't have my camera, so I'll have to hit one of them up for a copy later.

It still felt like a dream. It was only beginning to sink in that I was in Damascus, Syria, and that I would be for a long time to come. It was good to be with some fellow Buckeyes, but I felt very far from home. Later that night, in my hotel room, I did the obligitory flip through the TV channels to see what it was like here, but then clicked it off and turned my attention to the ceiling fan. After weeks and months of planning this trip, I asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing in Damascus?'