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

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.