Upon arriving in Damascus, I stayed a night at a sweet hotel called Al-Rabie before moving into my more permanent housing for the next two and a half weeks. My tutor (Hussein) set me up with a creepy skinny-legged, chain smoking landlord man (Tony) who showed me around a few places in the Old City before I settled into my sweet digs at Um Bassam‘s house.
Um Bassam is this tiny little, frail old Syrian women who rents out the extra rooms in her little apartment to people staying in Damascus for some reason or another. When I say tiny, I mean like 4 feet tall (though part of the shortness is the hunched back), and when I say old, I mean old (Tony kept describing her as “tired” which is very accurate). There are three extra rooms (and really not much else in the apartment), one of which holds a college student from Northern Syria, the second, a lawyer also from another town in Syria and then me. The apartment is in the heart of the Old City with it’s maze of streets and courtyards, a truly magical place.
Um Bassam has sweetly been helping me practice Arabic. It helps that the other language she speaks isn’t English, but rather Aramaic, which I don’t speak because I’m not from 4 BC and I’m not Jesus (if you remember your Mel Gibson Jesus movies well, you would remember that Aramaic is the languge of Christ himself). Less than 400,000 people in the world are native speakers of Aramaic, which makes it crazy that I am currently living with one. If Jesus returns some time in the next 20 days or so, I’ll be golden because I will have someone to translate for me.
And I think she would tell him that I’m a pretty cool dude. She seems to really like me – she already has asked me when I’m returning to Syria after I go back to Jordan, which took me a while to parse out in Arabic. I’m glad I don’t drink coffee because she offered it maybe 20 times just the first day, including once when she came into my room with a tray all prepared despite my refusing her offer the first 19 times. I love how she calls for me with my Arabic name (Ramiii??) and beckons me to sit and watch Arabic TV shows with her (last night was some strange tribute to poetry on Oof TV – I didn’t really catch much of what was going on…) and I love how she calls me “ShaTir” (smart) when I speak Arabic. I think she’s a pretty cool dude too.
All of the charm from the situation caused me to overlook some details about basic living standards, like that the toilet seat is held together in front by a large wire and partly covered in tin foil, with no toilet paper to be found, and that the bed has sheets but no other blankets, and that the kitchen is a little, well, nasty, and that there is a bit of a strange smell in the whole place… I asked my friend Nadeem what American stereotypes I uphold and he told me that Americans tend to get REALLY EXCITED about dumb things just because they are different or culturally interesting… This guy is guilty as charged. I mean, that’s like 85% of this blog. I’m a camel-loving, keffiyah wearing American living in the Arab World, and my American excitement got the better of me when assessing the situation with the apartment. Instead of being like “that bed is only about 5 and a half feet long” I was thinking “COOL! I had to walk through a COURTYARD to get into this house!” or instead of “it’s like 90 degrees in here and there’s only one rickety ceiling fan” I was thinking “COOL! The Lord’s Prayer in Arabic written on a huge cross is hanging on the wall.”
All in all, I can’t complain, and will come away with some sweet stories if nothing else. If I figure out a way with these internet cafes, I will post a picture sometime of my new best friend and me.