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

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.