(with, of course, all due respect to mr. e e cummings)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

On simplicity

            On a recent visit to a friend who was with me in Syria, I heard stories that don’t make the media, the kind of stories that clench my stomach with fear of civil war: trash left on the doorstep of members of the Alawite minority to which Pres. Assad belongs; notes tacked to Alawite doors threatening death if the families living there don’t abandon their homes within the week.  Stories that sound like Iraq.

            I have, of course, heard the stories of others in Syria.  Stories of teenagers arrested and tortured by police, of children shot, of homes shelled by military agents, of university students failing their graduation exams because they were in jail until the day before their tests.  I’ve heard rumors of military shooting deserters and even using rape as a weapon against civilians.  I’ve heard and read the pleas of members of the Christian minority for the West to support Assad, regardless of his methods, because they fear the alternative is Islamic rule, chaos, bloodshed, and the end of the religious minorities of the region.

            And because I was there, because I lived in Syria among Alawites and Sunnis and Christians and even Kurds, I know that none of them are blood-crazed fanatics longing secretly to ethnically cleanse their neighbors.  While all of the assertions of Syrian tolerance and loving-kindness toward others may not be true, a great many of them are.  The main interests of the Syrians I know are as follows: high heels with rhinestones, getting a degree so they can afford to open a small business and raise a family, persuading their girlfriend’s father to like them, going out to dinner, going camping, buying new pants, supporting their family, and drinking coffee and tea.  It seems unnecessary, but I’ll state it clearly: Syrians are humans, made of and desiring and fearing much the same things as Americans or anyone else.

That’s why the situations there is so complex, and so hard. 

It would be so simple if all of the opposition members were peaceful philosophers devoted to ideals of equality and democracy—as some of them are.  Instead, some of them engage in violence, and some of them threaten their neighbors. 

It would be so simple if all of the Alawites were power-hungry sycophants of the government—as some of them are.  Instead, some of them are families who never considered politics at all, thinking instead about art or engineering or fashion until the current crisis arose.

It would be so simple if all of the non-Alawites were oppressed and yearned for freedom.  Instead, some of them are terrified at the thought of losing what protection they have under the current government.  It is one thing to trust the opposition from here to live up to the ideals its members have espoused; it is another to bet your own life and, even more, those of your children, on their trustworthiness.

No matter what happens in the months and even years to come, people will be hurt.  Trust will be damaged, livelihoods will be lost, families will be torn, lives will be stolen.  The situation in Syria, the cycles of outcry and repression and blood and outcry again, have gone on too long to be tidily ended either by an opposition victory or by an erasure of the movement by the government.  There is no longer any good option, if there ever was one.  It’s not fair, but then again maybe it never was.

All I can ask of you now is that you remember the messy humanness of the world.  Nations and parties and armies are only individuals and families who are given or who adopt labels.  Simplifying this fact makes things easier for those far away, but can kill those people on the ground.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Valuating the Truth

Somebody asked me the other day whether Syrians who voice support for their current government really do like it.  I had to say and still have to say that I don't know.  I'm not there, but even more than that, when I was there, I didn't know.  It's probably a mix, like anything else.

The thing about an environment in which you don't know who to believe or who is listening is that it cheapens the truth.

Syrians grow up with the knowledge that the Western superpowers are not that hot on them and don't share many of their national goals-- the return of the Golan, for one.  In addition, Western media sources don't have the cultural background, connections, and sometimes even the linguistic skills that local ones do.  This is a serious problem in a context where connections (wasta) are everything.  The bottom line is, too, that most media are banned in Syria.  So much for Syrians believing what the Western media reports.

Then there's the Syrian official state media source, Sana.  I think it is safe to say that everyone is aware, at the very least, that Sana comes from a difference point of view than does the BBC or AFP.  Maybe Sana reports the absolute gospel truth, fact for fact.  Maybe it doesn't.  But given the choice between repeating what Sana says, be it even that there is no poverty in Syria, and repeating what alien sources say, what kind of choice is that?  You may mistrust both.  Both probably misrepresent events in one way or another, whether on purpose or not.  But repeating the reports of one flags you as suspicious and repeating the other makes you and your family safe.  It may even get you promoted.  So what's to choose?

On one level, it doesn't matter if what you're saying is true, because it won't be either way.  It doesn't even matter if you believe what you repeat.  It only matters that you don't needlessly endanger yourself or the people you love.  Remember this when you wonder why people everywhere don't speak out on behalf of the oppressed.

This is why the courage shown by those who speak or act out in Syria and in similar situations around the world is so shocking and amazing: it's illogical.  It's pinning your hopes on the fact that the truth is attainable and worth attaining, even if you don't know where it is or if anyone else is after it, too.  It's rejecting all the half-truths that offer support and striking out into darkness in hopes of something better being within your grasp before you are lost.  It's declaring that you deserve a third choice.  Ultimately, it's rejecting the paradigm of despair and fear that tells you that truth is for safe people somewhere else, while you are best suited only to getting by.

Monday, July 25, 2011

For Those About to Study Abroad (or really, go anywhere new)

Maybe you have heard me complain before about the sheer inadequacy of my preparation for studying in Syria.  A great deal of this lack of helpful preparation is due to the fact that my program was new; no one had sent undergraduates to Syria as part of an organized program before.  Still and all, there are a couple things I'd like to have been told.  Here's a brief listing.

Disclaimer: these are drawn from my own experience, which as you can read in earlier postings involved a lot of challenging times, places, and people.  I know other students who absolutely loved every minute of their time abroad and so would have very different things to say about the experience.

(Upon reflection, I'd say these are actually pertinent for people going into any kind of new situation, even going from Houston to Baltimore or one job or school to another.  I am too much a pseudo-philosopher.  Nonetheless, hopefully this is helpful.)

1. It really is important to know why you want to go where you are going.  When you reach (one of) the low point(s) of your time abroad and only want to go home, it helps to be able to remind yourself of unquestionably logical and firm reasons why you are in this place.  For me, this was the fact that I want to improve my Arabic and can do so best in an Arabic-speaking country.  In addition, I wanted to learn about Middle Eastern Christians and Syria is the place for it.  Even when I was lying on my bed hating everything, these were reasons I couldn't argue with.  Having them settled even before my arrival in Aleppo made this a lot easier.  (Maybe this is an advantage to studying in a place that you have to justify to everyone you mention it to.)

2. In my orientation, we were told that it was fine to talk to our parents while freaking out, but to make sure we called back as soon as we were feeling better so that said parents would not get an inaccurately negative picture of our lives abroad.  This is good as far as it goes, but I think it's also important to have people back home you can be completely honest with.  Depending on who you are, this could be parents, friends, partners, clergy...whatever.  In practice, this means that if you have a massive freak-out session because you just can't do this one more day, you can talk to these people and then not worry about reassuring them, because they will love you even if you don't call back in a couple hours in a normal state and they will have confidence in your ability to take care of yourself.  This doesn't mean they don't worry-- it means they trust you and you know it.  Living abroad can be stressful enough without having to hide your stress.  (Note-- I know sometimes you can't be completely honest online anyway, thanks to your host government.  We knew from the very beginning that our internet use would be monitored.  But the principle still holds.  Have someone(s) with whom you'll be as honest as circumstances permit.)

3. Be as fine as you can with your own style of cultural acclimation, and use it.  People are very different, and these differences become very obvious when you are studying abroad and in stressful situations.  Some people are happy to jump right into things and make twenty local friends the first week and can be seen soon after smoking with them next to "No Smoking" signs.  Some people are me and think this sounds terrifying.  They might have a couple local friends by the end of the second week and only really socialize with them in the dorms.  This is okay.  The only way this is not okay is if you don't socialize at all and never push yourself.  Measuring yourself against other students in the program in terms of vocab retained, friends made, local coffee shops visited, or "adoptions" by local families is kind of counterproductive and just makes you sad.  Or happy, but in a vindictive way.  Likewise, people deal with stress in different ways-- soccer, yoga, playing solitaire, watching movies, hanging out with other people.  Just roll with it and do your own kind of best, which sounds cheesy and perhaps is, but also keeps you sane.  I was so frustrated with myself for being shy and not bonding instantly with any of the Syrians or Americans, but I was the one the Syrian girls came to when they had troubles with the Americans.  Go figure.

4. Things I most glad I brought with me include: breakfast bars, a garland of paper stars, and some Peppermint Patties.  There are weird things you miss when you leave home, and little things can make a lot of difference with this.  Little things also make very good bartering items...I'd forgotten deodorant when I showed up and traded some breakfast bars for a stick of it with a girl down the hall.  When I popped out the first Peppermint Patty (with full knowledge of how alliterative it was), not only was it delicious, but I got the attention of all the other Americans who were around.  Little things make a difference even if they're not from home.  By the time things started getting crazy in our program and the country at large, several of the students had picked up the habit of buying bunches of candy bars whenever they went to the supermarket.  If somebody (including you) was having a bad day or being nice or getting frustrated or hungry or scared, giving them a candy bar meant a lot.  It helped that the exchange rate was great for us and these nice German chocolates cost maybe $1 or so.

5. Finally, because I'm getting long-winded and also 5 is a nice number to end on with a base-10 system, pay attention to cultural mores-- but not too much.  You may be shocked to hear this, coming from me, the super International Studies Major who loves to harp on Context and such.  And I agree that it's important to have some idea going in of how not to offend everyone you meet, and equally importantly, not to be terrified by everyone you meet.  For instance, going to Syria, you should know as a woman not to force a handshake on a man or to sit up front in a taxi.  You should also know that cross-gender friendships are okay; the nice guy who asks you where you're from is (usually) curious and actually nice, not creepy.  But if you spend all your time trying to keep to specific rules and guess at the other ones, you have no time to have fun.  People will generally forgive your mistakes if you are sincere about trying to avoid them.  Make sure to reserve some brain space for interacting with people, because in the end, that's what they are.  They're people, not just sociological structures of language, culture, and society.  They just might like you.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Heads Up

In a flurry of being unable to focus on my actual research today, I have decided that I will resuscitate this blog for new purposes.  I'm not entirely sure what those are yet, but they will likely include me thinking online about life, theology, religion, international affairs, and language, as these are the only things I think about anyway.  I think it might be nice to post little essays from time to time and see what people think.  This is mostly a warning: I am going to remove everyone from the email update list, since you were there to hear about Syria, not my philosophical jumbles.  If you'd like to keep getting email updates when/if I ever post anything here, please just let me know and I'll be happy to put you back on that list.  If you do not, thanks for following along on my earlier adventures anyway-- knowing that I was remembered stateside meant more than I can express here.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


So I'm back.

Back in the United States, back in Georgia.

I am glad to see my family.  I am glad for a stove that works, for hot water that runs out of the shower head, for toilets that are clean, for weekends that include Sunday, for being on the same time zone as many more of my friends.  It's a relief not struggling to make myself understood.  It's a relief being able to understand people who aren't going out of their way to speak slowly and use small words.  I had a lovely 21st birthday yesterday in Florida with my family and got the best birthday present possible from my boyfriend.

These things are true.

Other things that are true include that fact that I check the news every morning and curse the fact that the Western media is no better informed now than they were when I was there.  I check the news, panic a little, and then check Facebook, tracking down each of my friends and doing mental math to figure out what time it was in Syria when they posted last.  So far, so good.  Everyone I know and am Facebook friends with is safe but scared.  Some of them are my heroes.  If you want details, ask me in a more private setting.  But I check every day, and I'm scared for them.  There's nothing I can do but pray, which is what they've asked anyway.

I still need time to process everything.  Something will come of this from me, but right now I don't know what it is and can't think straight enough to figure it out just yet.  The important point here is that I am back in Georgia, safe, and will be finishing out some of my credits online.  Please, everybody, whatever it is in you to do for Syria right now, do it.  Pray, think good thoughts, educate yourselves, keep updated, ask me for stories, think about the young man who loves Einstein and da Vinci or the young woman who taught me to roll grape leaves or the one who cared for me when I was sick or the young man who has a secret motorcycle at his house.  I'll try and post photos later.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On Religion

Those of you who know me well are probably surprised this post hasn't happened yet.  Well, wait no more.  Here comes Elise's religion-nerd posting.  Before I get into that, however, a brief update on life here.  Things in Aleppo are pretty calm and I've been being careful and safe, so don't worry about me.  We're spending the rest of spring break in Aleppo, which means I made a very fun but probably not financially smart gift-shopping trip yesterday.  I've gotten pretty good at haggling, although that makes it sound like I'm being annoying (possibly because it sounds like "nagging").  In reality, though, the way it works here is that I walk up, admire merchandise, surprise the shopkeeper by being able to speak Arabic, and then make friends with said shopkeeper.  I get a little off for speaking Arabic, a little off for being a student at the local university, a little off for being nice, a little off if the gift is for a "good cause" (a family member or a house of God), a little off if they have a friend in the US...etc.  It's fun being a novelty and incredibly and always welcomed.

While I can't speak to the ideas of all Syrians and while, as in any country, there is a diversity of viewpoints, I've heard the following from enough people that I think it's pretty standard here: "The important thing about religion is how you treat each other."  Variants include: "...and God takes care of the rest", "...and that's why the Christians are our brothers", and "..and that's why Syrians look forward while Saudis and Iranians are backward-looking."  This evening, after I was introduced by a Syrian hallmate to his family friend as a student of religion, the family friend asked me what the difference was between Christianity and Islam.  In my barely-adequate Arabic, I started going into the role of the Prophet Muhammad and differing views of Jesus.  Turns out the family friend has a master's degree in Islamic shari'a, and he proceeded to give me the same talk as so many others: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as all "heavenly" religions-- the People of the Book-- and the important thing for all three is how you treat other humans.  It's a refreshing perspective.

On this issue, I often feel closer to the Syrians than to the other Americans in the program.  For anyone who doesn't know, I am a Christian who identifies both as religious and as spiritual; few of the other Americans would do so.  This is an issue which arose in literature class once when we discussed the Arabic word "maktoob" (lit.: "written"), meaning something that is preordained or meant to be.  Many of the students seemed to have a hard time believing that modern, generally rational people could also believe in God.  Likewise, the phrase "insha'allah" means for many students just "hopefully."  For most Syrians, though, its literal meaning, "if God wishes/wills", is the important one.  For the highly secular-minded American liberal-arts college student, God has nothing to do with whether our plane will take on in May.  On Ash Wednesday, I couldn't find a church at which to attend services; I burned paper on the stove to make my own ashes and smeared a cross on my forehead.  I told the Syrians that it was for a religious holiday, and that was pretty much that.  Doing weird things for religious reasons is pretty a3dii here.

I don't mean to rag on the Americans too much; perhaps I've been spoiled by the active Methodist group at my university and the wonderful teachers in the department of religion and philosophy.  My religious-person hat would like it if people were a bit more understanding, but it is my academia-of-religion hat that is most concerned.  While it's great to know things like the five pillars of Islam or the names of the books of the Gospel, what is more useful to understand religions is empathy and acceptance of religion as important.  Especially in studying Syrian society, an appreciation of the role of religion is vital.  Additionally, regardless of one's own personal beliefs, one cannot get a realistic and fair idea of Syrian society if one is convinced that religion is an archaic hold-over from medieval times.  Neither of the two major religions in the country-- Islam and Christianity-- is necessarily a burden on individuals nor a mark of backwardness.  Both are important and dynamic forces in everyday life and underlie every decision made by people throughout the country. 

I guess this is just frustrating for me because I am interested already in religion, and so know its importance in society.  To add onto that, I have put a good deal of effort into identifying and dividing my two afore-mentioned hats (religious convictions and academic learning).  I'd kind of like the same from other people; if you are not religious, wonderful.  Fine.  Don't be religious.  But identify and then suspend your own convictions or lack thereof when learning about other people's.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Notes from the North

A couple people have inquired after me, seeing as I haven't posted in a while and things have been getting a little weird here.  I can tell you that I am perfectly fine, and as far as I've seen, nothing's been going on up here in the north of the country.  I'll be traveling this coming week to a monastery in the middle of the country, where I'll do whatever needs doing-- dish washing to shepherding-- for a week to earn my keep.  I'm sure there will be lots of stories on that come April, so stay tuned.  In the mean time, I'm being very smart and not going anyplace or doing anything that would make me look like anything less than the apolitical angel I am.  So you probably already know this, but please no political discussions here or on my Facebook page!

For now, I thought I'd give you guys some helpful Arabic words.
1) "a3dii" (the "3" is transliteration for the "ayn" or glottal stop in Arabic, which the the sound in the middle of a cockney pronunciation of "bottle")
  As far as I can tell, this literally means "normal" or "everyday."  In usage, however, it tends to mean anything but.  Or maybe this is just a dealing-with-foreigners thing.  Anyway, I've heard "a3dii" at least once a day from arrival onward.  For instance, when trying to explain Syrian social norms to the Americans, some of the hallmates told us that it is "a3dii" for men and women to text each other and to hang out together.  In another example, a friend here managed to trip over her own feet and sprawl undignified on the kitchen floor.  The kind-hearted Syrians said this was "a3dii" too.  However, when we spent the weekend driving around a calm suburb, windows open, blasting trashy American dance music, the Syrians driving with us said this, too, was "a3dii."  As was our off-key singing, as were our clumsy translation efforts (have you ever tried translating dance songs?), as was our game of hallway soccer using a shoe as ball.  So, yes: "a3dii" now also means "not a3dii."

2) "shoo"
   "Shoo" is a uniquely Syrian colloquial word, meaning "what" (The Modern Standard Arabic equivalent is "ma" or "matha."  Told you MSA and colloquial are very different).  The great thing about "shoo", though, is how much it lends itself to a tone of injured confusion or utter bewilderment.  Try it.  Look in the mirror, make a sad puppy-dog face, and ask yourself, "Shoo?"  Before I was comfortable at all with speaking Arabic here, I used "shoo" to within an inch of its life, and continue to make extensive use of it now.  It's going to be hard to lose the "shoo" when I'm supposed to be using MSA in formal settings, such as classroom study.

3) "insha'allah"
   This is an Arabic phrase, but one found in use by non-Arabophone Muslim communities as well.  Literally, it means "if God wishes."  Here, you tack it onto any event you discuss which will take place in the future.  For example, I will be getting back to the US in May, insha'allah.  I always thought this was just an incredibly pious thing to do, and I suppose it is, but also, I've come to see the need for "insha'allah" more clearly.  Things rarely happen as you expect: a random holiday may be declared, there may be no hot water for that long shower you were lusting after, you may not receive the exit visa you were promised last month.  You just have to be flexible.  "Insha'allah" isn't a total abdication of personal responsibility, although it can seem that way when you're looking for a definitely yes or no.  It's more along the lines of "I'll do all I can and then the rest is in God's hands."

Class dismissed for today, masalaama wa ila liqaa, allah m3ak, and insha'allah I'll speak to you all again soon!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Being Atticus Finch (the only way I know how)

It's been a while since I last wrote here, a good few things have happened.  My harshest critic (me) has finally and begrudgingly stated that I've gotten a lot better at Arabic.  I've had entire conversations that last more than five minutes and contain only a minimum of charades.  Not to be smug about it or anything, but I'm pretty proud of myself.  I still have to force myself out there, but there are several of the Syrians on the hall who I count as real friends now, and I'm to the level of pillow fights and silly faces.  Strange, that it took me getting over verbal communication to make it to being comfortable with nonverbal communication.  Recently, a friend from American University was in town with his mom.  Speaking with them, I realized that even outside of language, I've learned so much here that I didn't know before.  My ideas about Syria have changed completely, now that I know how diverse it is.  If you want a nice spiel from me on religious and ethnic diversity and amazing tolerance in Syria, just let me know.

Probably the most notable thing in my recent past, though, was the group trip to Damascus, Quneitra, and Ma'aloula.  Damascus was...well...the big city.  The buildings were taller, the taxi drivers less friendly, the foreigners more numerous.  I discovered that I have city loyalty to Aleppo.  To Damascus' credit, though, it boasts both Indian and Chinese food, neither of which can be found in Aleppo.  And the Ummayad Mosque, which we girls entered in hasty hijab and borrowed abayyas, was splendid in the most sincere use of the word.  (Pictures someday when the Internet connection is stronger, I promise.)

The most emotional portion of the trip, though, took place in Quneitra, capital of the Golan region of Syria.  You've probably heard of the Golan, or Golan Heights, in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  According to those leading our tour, after the end of the war and right before handing a part of the land back to the Syrians, Israeli soldiers razed the city of Quneitra.  Syria decided to rebuild the city nearby, saying that they would leave the old Quneitra as a memorial because it remained in danger of Israeli invasion once more.  We walked solemnly through a hospital reduced to rubble, a church barren of anything more than its pock-marked walls, and a cemetery dedicated to those who died in the wars.  We saw many families with small children having what looked like picnics among the ruins...they looked like picnics because they were.  Every Friday (the holy day of the weekend) families from the old Quneitra, many of whom now live in Damascus, are permitted to go take a meal or just sit together in what was their yard.

Before the cemetery, we visited the UN checkpoint and border beyond which you can see the rich fields of the part of the Golan occupied by Israel.  One of my professors here has a pet peeve about people referring to the area as "the Golan Heights"; he thinks this sounds rocky and barren.  Maybe he has a point, because it's anything but.  Apparently, the very best apples in the Middle East come from the Golan, and the farmland is among the most fertile in Syria.  Many farming families were split apart by the demarcation, resulting in the infamous "Screaming Valley" across which family and friends shout their news to one another via bullhorn.  (More things I had no idea about before coming.)  Standing at the border, one of the Syrian girls with whom I am closest-- the one who cared for me, hardly knowing me, when I was sick and miserable, with whom I had my first real Arabic conversations, who feeds me whenever the opportunity arises-- started crying.  I and one of my American friends made a hug ball with her and gave her tissues, and then we walked together to the bus.

By the time we got to the cemetery, we were all at least a little emotionally drained.  One of the Americans, however, began arguing politics with a Syrian chaperon amidst the tombstones (among which there were several crosses), resulting in some things being said which were perhaps not appropriate to the solemn, respectful setting.  Another American in the program became upset by this and so I ended up snuggling with her, too. 

All this made me think.  Obviously, being in Quneitra and quite literally faced with the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict was food for thought and will be for a long time to come.  But while I am sometimes the facilitator of communication, I have never been a natural solver of conflict.  Deepest apologies to my School of International Service at American University, which seems to want all of us to be policy "wonks" and fix the world's problems that way.  Honestly, the Arab-Israeli conflict(s) is/are too big for me to handle on my own, probably ever.  (Even just that sentence was tough!)  I thought it was interesting that what I ended up doing in Quneitra for both a Syrian and an American is what I seem to do best by nature: holding someone until they can deal with the world again. 

A friend recently related to me the metaphor of Gandhi and Atticus Finch.  Some people change the world like Gandhi, by knowing and mobilizing many people for institutional change.  Other people change the world by knowing fewer people, maybe only one small community, but meaning everything to them: Atticus Finch.  Not a perfect analogy, but good enough for my purposes.  I think the world needs both.  "Gandhi" people are more well-known, and so being one seems a higher goal, but I also think it's kind of a waste of time and energy to struggle to be what you're not.  So I'll support the people who work at the highest level for peace and justice, but I'll also try to recognize the worth of the gifts of the Attici (would that be the plural of "Atticus"?).  As I said before in the linguistic context, I am my own harshest critic, but I will also go on giving whatever I have to the people in my sphere.  And sometimes hopefully maybe insha'allah-- that will be good enough.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Possibly Innocents Abroad

This is, I think, the first post on which I am pulling out my little carry-on size soapbox.  If it's too obnoxious, please excuse me and go on with your lives.   That said:

I'm sure all of you have been following the news on the Middle East to one degree or another.  Maybe you are a university student and need to keep up on the news for a class, maybe you're worried about me, maybe you are just a generally informed individual.  And many of you disagree with some of the choices made by our government at one point or another.  I know that this is true.  The thing is, though, and I never realized this before, but that doesn't always make it across the big big pond.  For the most part, the Syrians are really good at separating the objectionable choices made by government from the feelings of the people ruled by said government.  Therefore, while they pretty uniformly oppose America's occupying Iraq, they're not mad at me about it; they are mad, if they are mad, at the American government.  This is a vital distinction and one which we in the US sometimes fail to make.  (A couple of the Americans in the program have reported people yelling at them about political stuff, but that was also at a club.)

When it comes to the incredibly momentous changes currently sweeping the region, though, the Syrians with whom I've spoken are bewildered by the American response, or lack thereof.  American waffling during the Egyptian revolution they can get; it was a big deal, after all, involving a major US ally, and the outcome was uncertain.  But now that Libyan planes are opening fire on civilian protesters and hundreds have died throughout the country, how can "the West" (in big quotation marks) remain silent?  Looking at the previous examples of recent popular uprisings in the area, and considering that the Libyan ambassador to America himself has condemned the repression of protests, why isn't the land of the free and home of the brave even speaking for freedom and courage?

Similarly confounding is the recent American veto of a UN resolution which would condemn Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as an obstruction to the peace process.  This would have been, like previous UN resolutions regarding Israeli occupation and settlements, ink on paper, nothing more.  It contained language rather similar to that used earlier by American officials when requesting a halt in settlement construction.  Yet of the 15 members of the UN Security Council, only America opposed the resolution.  That was enough to halt it completely, even though the US could have abstained.  Given the current political atmosphere in the Middle East, especially, the American veto seems...well...foolish.  Couldn't American officials look at the 14 other delegates and gracefully bow out on this one, rather than staking an increasingly isolated position contrary to prior UN resolutions?  For me and the other Americans here, it's kind of embarrassing, and definitely hard to explain.

While, as I mentioned, the Syrians I know are very good at the government/people distinction, not everyone is.  And the more that gap widens, the more difficult it will be for people in other countries to think of Americans as fellow humans-- with stubbed toes and runny noses and cute babies and crushes on people and weird songs they learned in elementary school.  From being here, I've learned that passively disagreeing with government decisions, while a good start, can't be enough right now.  Because, unless I had several hundred college-age Facebook friends with constant status updates about politics and international relations, I would have no idea that some Americans protested in support of Egypt and now of Libya.  For our own sakes, we need to be heard at the highest levels, through advocacy work or arguing with our representatives or whatever.  Because it's their doings that make it over here, and right now, it's not a pretty picture of the American people, nor, I would argue, an accurate one.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And when the dust had settled...

So it's been a bit of a rough week.  Last Thursday evening, at the end of a long week of classes and trying to understand what was being said around me, I went out for a nice dinner in Jdeideh, the Christian quarter of Aleppo.  The food was great, but being out and about with a bunch of Americans without a scheduled educational activity was even better.  It was the largest and most non-pasta/non-sandwich meal I'd had in about a week.  Come quarter to seven the next morning, I found myself violently ill and knocking pathetically at the door of my Syrian hallmate for help.  She gave me soap and waited while I washed up, then tucked me into her extra bed and made me some mint tea.  Throughout the rest of the day, she brought me small, non-stomach-offending items of food and made small talk with me, quite a feat given how limited my Arabic is in the best of times.  When I tried to thank her, she protested that it was her religious duty as a Muslim to help those in need.  And wouldn't I have done the same were she in America and sick?  Of course, I said.  Akiid.

I was done being sick by the next day, but stayed in a bit of a funk until yesterday evening.  I think we've all reached the low point of culture shock...why, exactly, did we come here?  Why did we think we could speak Arabic?  Our Syrian hallmates want us to hang out with them more in the lounge, which I can understand.  We were told before coming here that Syrian friendships tend to be deeper and more pervasive than American ones; once you're someone's friend here, it is normal for you to be very close indeed and to hang out all the time.  (That explains, actually, a good part of why I felt uncomfortable with some of the Syrian guys at the beginning, I think.  They assumed we were friends, which meant paying a lot more attention to me than anyone in America would do, having met me a couple days before.)  So the American habit of staying by yourself in your room and going on Facebook seems kind of antisocial to them.

To a degree, they're right, though.  We've been here, I think, three weeks now, and many of us still don't spend much time with the group at large.  As I tried to explain to the Syrians, hanging out is tough when you can't understand what's being said around you and can only formulate very basic responses to questions.  Being the sweet people they are, they countered that they understand we're still learning, that they'll repeat things as often as necessary, that they'll try to speak fuSha, the formal Arabic that we're more familiar with.  And, ultimately, that devastatingly true statement: we won't learn anything sitting in our rooms.  In our defense, though, unless the Syrians are consciously attempting to include us in the conversation, most of us can't participate and end up humming quietly and staring out the window at...the other dorms.  This sounds awfully like whining, and I'm here to learn better Arabic, so I've been trying hard to at least be in the lounge when people are around.  Thoughts?  Suggestions?

And maybe the success-is-90%-showing-up strategy will work out.  Last night, which was when my funk started wearing off, I had a lovely Skype session with my boyfriend, who directed me to have a good evening, whatever I did.  I hear and obey, apparently.  I went into the lounge and interacted-- slowly and awkwardly but functionally-- with a couple hallmates I hadn't met before, and then had an impromptu lesson on preparing stuffed grape leaves.  The night ended around 2 am with birthday-celebration dancing to alternating American and Arabic music, including, on our end, the chacha slide.  An administrator from the floor above came to ask if we knew what time it was and why were we being so loud anyway?  Nothing bonds people like birthdays and threatened administrative action.  We kept dancing.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Couple of Days in the Life Squashed Into One

So I've had a couple of people ask me about my life here, what a normal day is like.  I've also been promising people pictures.  Hopefully, I can fulfill both of these requests now, Internet gods willing.

I live in student housing at the University of Aleppo.  Specifically, my dorm is called "Dar al-Diyafeh", or Hospitality House, and houses most of the international students.  I've met a couple of Americans not in my program, as well as some Turkish, Japanese and Iranian students.  (We're having a pizza party with the Iranians on Thursday, which is exciting.)  I live on the third floor, which is entirely populated by kids on my program and our Syrian hallmates, who live here to make us use our Arabic and help us get further into Syrian culture.  As you get to the third floor, you see the common room, complete with couches, TV, used tea and coffee cups, and forbidden-but-lit cigarettes.  To the left is the girls' wing, beyond a set of swinging double doors, and to the right, the boys' wing.  Officially, we're not supposed to mix, but for cooking and movie-watching purposes, the American girls invaded the boys' domain long ago.  Today, the gas on the guys' side is out, so they came over to our kitchen to cook.  That made for a fun dash to my room after showering.

Dar al-Diyafeh (Hospitality House)

I have a better view from my window than you do from yours.

So I wake up on school days (Sunday-Thursday) around 8 am, grump angrily to the bathroom to brush my teeth (yes, for those of you who know her, Morning Elise came to Syria, too), and then turn out to go to class with everyone else around 8:45.  The past few days, the gate of the university closest to our academic building has been locked, so I and whoever else doesn't want to scale the gate grump around to another gate and are late to class.  I'm in classical Arabic class from 9 to 12ish, with two breaks during that time.  My teacher is this wonderful lady who dresses in black and-- weirdly-- thinks we're funny.  Today, we acted out movies in class, and I ended up explaining "Pride and Prejudice" in Arabic.  Cross-cultural communication, anyone?

As of next week, we'll have a shorter classical Arabic class and an additional colloquial Arabic class in addition.  This is an important distinction...the Arabic language is characterized by what linguists call "diglossia", where one language type is used for certain contexts and another for others.  In the case of Arabic, classical Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and the basis for what I actually learn, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the language of politics, speeches, business, religion, and other formal settings.  Colloquial Arabic varies from place to place.  You can draw a parallel to accents or regional dialects, but the case of diglossia is more extreme.  Grammar is different, some words are completely different, but it's necessary to keep straight which is which.  In university Arabic classes, you usually only learn MSA, although some schools offer upper-level courses in various colloquials for students who already know MSA.  I'm learning Levantine (specifically Syrian) Colloquial Arabic now, just from interacting with people around me.

This picture has nothing to do with diglossia, but I'm proud of it.  So it goes here.

After MSA class, we have about an hour for lunch and then I go to an English content course, either Literature as a Cultural Lens or Middle Eastern Issues.  These are both a bit fluffy.  Afterward, I go home and...do something.  Homework, studying, napping, adventuring in the city...this last is especially easy because a taxi trip within the city costs approximately 40-50 Syrian lira (about $1).  Recently, I've been to the Aleppo Citadel, one of Aleppo's ancient souqs, Al-Jdeideh (the Christian Quarter), and a Greek Orthodox church.  If you want more information about any of these, just let me know.  And then what...and then I come back to Dar al-Diyafeh if I ever left it, and provide moral support and/or ingredients for a bit of communal dinner-cooking.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 or 12 pm, I go blissfully to sleep.

The less-claustrophobic view of the souq that tall people might have.

The Greek Orthodox church I visited for approximately twenty minutes, thanks to
some easily-bored fellow visitors.  The building's about 25 years old.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Living in Exciting Times, They Say

Public Service Announcement to concerned friends and relatives:  things are fine here at the university.  My biggest adventure of the day has been going to Carrefour, a sort of French Wal-Mart located near Aleppo.  (I figured staying out of downtown wasn't a bad idea, just in case.)  Here's a short glom of thoughts on life and living it in Halab (Aleppo):

My Contemporary Middle East professor is very cute in an old man kind of way and studied at American University, my school, for several years.  He therefore knows one of my professors, who's been there a while, and I officially have an "in" with him...anything for said professor at AU, he says.  He was talking to us about cultural differences between here and the US, and the best line of the speech was this: "Am I sexist?  Yes, I think I am.  I am sexist."  This was less of a reproachable statement than you might think, though, as it was in conjunction with talking about how he worries more about his daughter than his sons.  I know plenty of American dads who do the same.

Speaking of the sexes...I've been thinking a lot about Syrian men.  And not in an admiring way.  They drive me pretty crazy, since they seem to think American women are all...well...not all that modest, and open to all kinds of things.  As the girls walk to class, we often hear out the window, "Hello!  How are you?  I love you!" in English.  The thing is, American guys can be obnoxious too.  I keep reminding myself of that.  The difference is, I know how to handle American guys.  I know when they're acting interested, I know when they're pushing the boundaries of politesse, I know how to warn them off.  So, upon reflection, the Syrian guys are probably not as horrible as I tend to think...I just don't know how to play "battle of the sexes" here.  And so life is hard and involves lots of trial and error...hopefully not so much error.

But now about girls!  I had a Syrian make-over the other day!  Some of the girls on the hall decided they were in the mood for fingernail-painting.  After they ran out of their own fingers, they offered to do mine.  It's a pretty color-- sort of dark red-- and apparently special because it's from Turkey.  (I'll admit I think it's also the first time since prom that I've had nail polish on.)  Then we went to one the girls' room and sat around eating lunch and talking...admittedly, they talked more than I did, and I asked them to repeat everything at least once, but it was fun.  It was the first time I'd had extended interaction with Syrian girls, as they tend to be less outgoing with strangers than the guys.

(But, as in the US, there are marked differences...some of the girls on the floor are very extroverted indeed, and one in particular loves to dance in the lounge.  And she is GOOD at it.  While we're on the topic: clothing varies among women, too.  Many women wear the hijab, but not everyone.  Christians don't, and some Muslims.  On the street, some women are completely covered, eyes, hands, and all.  At the other end of the hijab spectrum, there are women like some of the girls on our hall, who wear pretty, flashy scarves over their hair only, and manage to rock a long shirt, leggings, and high heels.  These latter girls are happy to sing, dance, or hang out around men, while some of the more conservative girls will dance only around other women.)

The other night in the floor lounge, some of said singing-and-dancing was going on, and I asked my nail-polish buddy if sometime she would teach me an Arabic song.  She was more than happy, as was everyone else in the room-- immediately!!  They wrote out the lyrics to the first half of a Fairouz song (Fairouz being an intensely beloved Lebanese singer) and played it for me four or five times.  Now, almost every time I see one of the people who was there, they quiz me.

Important things: the Internet here is not always strong.  The dorm I live in was formatted for us especially, I think, and has lots of new things, among them hot water, wireless Internet, and co-ed floors (girls on one wing, boys on the other).  That means some of these things act up a lot.  So if I agreed to Skype with you or something and I don't show up, or if you don't hear from me for a couple days, that's probably why.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Still Among the Living

As the title suggests, I am alive!  And, knock on wood, the Internet is good at the moment, so I thought I'd drop by for a moment.  The flight here was long long long, but with each airport I came through, the group of students I was in grew larger, so I got to meet a lot of the kids before arriving in Aleppo.  A group of nine of us arrived together, which made the last leg a lot better than it would have been otherwise.  The students are a mixed bunch, but invariably interesting-- five others from AU, a girl who flies planes, many who have studied in Cairo or Damascus already, a full range of heights...and some sharp Arabic language skills.  I'm a bit embarrassed, especially as none of my Arabic professors ever emphasized speaking.  I can write a mean sentence or put the formal diacritical vowels on a text along with...well, not the best of the them, but the upper-middle section of them.  However, speaking still scares me.  I take pride, then, in my short conversations with a) a juice-seller and b) one of our lovely Syrian hallmates.  I take less pride in...my oral proficiency exam this morning.  Not so good, but there will be time for adjustment of class levels the first week of school if necessary.

Speaking of classes, I wanted to address some of the main differences I've noticed thus far:

1) The work week begins on Sunday (in Arabic, appropriately enough, "Yom Al Ahad" = [roughly] "The First Day").  Friday, the Islamic holy day, and Saturday are the weekend.  So I'm spending my weekend in orientation.  This means that when we went adventuring in the old city of Aleppo today, it being Friday, nearly everything was closed.
2) The azaan is the call to prayer, issued from minarets around the city at set times of day.  People say it is either the most beautiful thing they've ever heard OR a terrible way to wake up.  Well, now I can tell you.  It is beautiful.  That is true.  It is also not nice to wake up at five am to the sounds of roughly 8 million muezzins (the men who do the azaan) calling about a music-measure apart and continuing for a good fifteen minutes.  Especially when your language placement exam is at 9:30 that morning.
3) People STARE at us.  We're a group of mostly white American kids, with one Japanese kid and one Pakistani kid.  We stick out, and are the center of attention at any given time.  I spent most of high school learning how to get through crowds without sticking out too badly.  Men stare at the women in our group even more.  Sexy forearms.  It makes me glad for my beloved baggy-sweater wardrobe.
4) I don't want to give an overwhelmingly bad impression of Halab-ian life, though.  Nearly everyone who has found out that we are American-- usually by asking one of us-- has said, "Welcome to Syria!  Welcome to Aleppo!  We are glad you're here!" or some variant on that.  And our Syrian hallmates are really sweet.  There were also the Turkish tourists who we asked if they spoke Arabic.  They said, "No.  Turkish.  Turkish perfect!"

So...not really any more wit or witticism for tonight.  Tomorrow, I sign my language pledge: to speak only Arabic (except for communication with home) until I leave the program.  After that, you'll be probably be getting the full brunt of all my humor, as my Arabic is quite definitely NOT up to puns and sarcasm yet.  My big linguistic accomplishment of the day?  Learning the word for tomato.  "Banadoura."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Setting Up

Hello all-- so I'm still a couple weeks off from leaving for Aleppo, but I thought I'd go ahead and start setting up my blog.  Here's some background information for anyone who's interested:

Want to see other people's beautiful photos of where I'll be?  Take a glance at this page, which is all pictures of Aleppo.  Aleppo's ancient name is Halab, which is usually attributed to Abraham's having given out milk (haleeb) to travelers there.  I thought about making a bad joke for the title of this blog about "milking" my experience for all it's worth.  Aren't you glad I didn't?

I'll be studying (and living) at Aleppo University.  Their site may not be too helpful for you unless you read Arabic...better than I do...but you can see the lovely picture they have on their home page.  Just like AU, actually: a large square beige building.  But our dorms apparently have stunning sunsets, too.

Finally, if you have bunches of time on your hands, you can cast a glance at the site for my program with CET.  More information than you could possibly ever want (unless you're thinking of going there) about academics, life there, and all kinds of goodies.

Well, I've got my visa, haven't studied Arabic anywhere near recently enough, and have started in on my infamous lists and Excel spreadsheets of things to do and pack, so you'll probably hear from me next from...diagonally across the pond!  Wish me luck!