Category Archives: Syria

Will Um Bassam Eat Me Before I Leave?

I’m pretty sure Um Bassam is not a fan of Ramadan. She keeps telling me I shouldn’t fast because I’m too skinny. “It would be one thing if you were fat…” One of her favorite past times is to try to feed me as much as possible, which has certainly been limited while I fast during the day. She uses tricks and ploys to lure me into sitting next to her and eating whatever she desires, while we discuss mundane things, like the time when she told me she saw the renter downstairs completely naked, and then made fun of him because he’s Asian (turns out that grandmothers are racist everywhere).

This pastime has led me to believe she’s trying to fatten me up, perhaps to eat me. One time early on I was sitting on my bed reading when Um Bassam popped up in the doorway holding a large box of cookies of some sort. [in Arabic] “RAaaamiiii??!? Would you like a cookie?” Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I said yes, and she immediately retreated out to the main room, beckoning me to follow and to “Oud” (the command “sit,” her trademark phrase)… Ah, the catch. Something in my childhood fairytale education warned me not to follow the short, grinning old woman offering me sweets, but I did. Many, many cookies later (somewhere around 15, I lost count), and many, many crazy stories later, I was finally released from her sweet iron grip, fatter and perhaps more delicious?

My suspicions were aroused again when I came home to find her sitting completely in the dark, with no fan or TV or anything else turned on. “El-Kahruba’ maqtoo3a?” Is the electricity cut off? “La, oud” No, sit. Okaaay…I dutifully followed her instructions and she proceeded to cut a few apples up into slices, peel them one by one and then feed them to me, while I told her how much various world currencies were worth in Syrian Lira (in the dark). “Shukran, shukran, yaslamo” Thank you, thank you so much. And then (and now here’s the kicker) she took the same knife and started peeling off what I thought was dead skin from her fingers. Like, I’m talking using force to dig the knife into the top layer of her finger – actual finger, not the fingernail – and to peel off layers of happy goodness. And then (okay, maybe this is the kicker) she went back to the apple, and used the same knife to peel some pieces to gobble up herself. This was when I decided that even politeness has its limits and refused any further offers.

It took some fighting through the language barrier to figure out that she had been using glue earlier in the day and was trying to get the glue off of her fingers, not trying peel off her outer human skin to reveal the beast beneath. Or so she says. All I know for sure is that Um Bassam may or may not be a fairytale witch. I will see tomorrow whether the cab (which she arranged – !) takes me to the bus station or to her secret renter cooking lair.

Jokes aside, I will certainly miss my new 73 year-old friend, but I am happy to be leaving this 108-degree-Fahrenheit-no-air-conditioning-intermittent-electricity land for the comforts of my own home. Ma’a Es-Salaama yaa Syria! مع السلامة يل سورية

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Snow White Probably Had Back Problems

My back has been hurting lately, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. I have never had back problems before. Um Bassam complains about her back all the time, perhaps back pain is contagious? Actually no, it dawned on me today that I’m living in a dwarf house, but instead of 7 little dwarves, I live with one 4 foot 5, 73 year woman. And in this dwarf house I bend over constantly to try to fit in.

I realized this yesterday when I was studying Arabic on the table in my room, and I just couldn’t continue because I had to bend over so far to write on due to it being quite low to the ground that my back was killing me. Then I thought about it and realized that the whole place is built the same way. The toilet is about 6 inches to low, 75% the area that my backside would prefer and my knees are a few inches from propping the door open while I take care of business. And the shower head does a very nice job of cleaning my neck. My feet hang way over the end of my bed unless I try to go diagonal, but that doesn’t work well because the ceiling fan only reaches a slice of the bed. And I’ve hit my head numerous times on the door frame of the kitchen.

But probably the biggest piece of evidence of my dwarf abode is the mirror placement. I haven’t seen my face in a couple weeks, but I have a pretty good idea of how my torso looks. This is the longest I have gone without shaving because I just don’t think that I would be able to bend over for that long to try to see my own face.

I’m in the market for some of that delicious-looking body-shrinking junk that Alice finds in Wonderland (but only a little)… but I guess I couldn’t eat it anyway because of the fast. I’ll be back to normal sized land in about a week.

Using Facebook, PayPal, eBay from an “Axis of Evil”

I know that there are a lot of people, uneducated and educated, who have a fear of the Middle East, especially of the Arab world. I guess if the only thing you ever hear about are suicide bombers on the news it could be understandable. But, I don’t think that’s only what people hear, just what they focus on. I think it would only take one visit to the Middle East to really change all of that, especially in Jordan. I mean, I feel far more safe in Amman than I do in New York City. Shopkeepers sometimes just cover up their fruit with a blanket and leave it overnight by the side of the road, and nothing happens. The other day when I was trying to get to Syria, I asked a taxi driver “Where can I get a servees (a shared car basically) that goes to Syria?” He took me to some random corner, dropped me off with some guys who barely had a shop front, who put me in a car with a random dude and three other customers and off we went to Syria. Maybe a less trusting… more careful… person would have been a bit freaked out (I read a blog post about some travelers who did the same but followed the driver’s course on their GPS the entire way up to make sure he wasn’t taken them somewhere to, I dunno, suicide bomb them maybe), but I am very trusting of people here and feel very secure.

And the same is true of Syria. Reputation-wise, Jordan gives off a fairly neutral impression, which is very accurate. Syria on the other hand seems to strike fear in the hearts of the democratic and patriotic, an axis of evil ready to pound you in the face with state sponsored terrorism, BAM. The US has a pretty awful relationship, partly because of a little stretch of land on the Mediterranean sea called I-s-r-a-e-l. If you have any hint of an Israeli stamp on your passport, including the sticky former outline of an Israeli sticker, you are denied entry. My visa to come here cost $131, only lasts 15 days, and was a complete pain to obtain.

But you would never know any of this from the situation on the ground. The city reminds me of Istanbul, or some other major city where old and new coexist harmoniously. Americans are like any other foreigners here – which seem to be mostly ignored by Syrians (this I like a lot). The people here are friendly and helpful, and have this way of talking that makes it sound like they’re singing (other Arabs always make fun of this). My students in Jordan who are from Syria are incredibly warm, and hardly representatives of an axis of evil. And Um Bassam rocks my face off. There is a huge gap between the political situation and actions of the Syrian government with the nature of the Syrian people, and this is the gap that I don’t think people see when they think about the Middle East.

But I keep getting reminded of the fact that I am in a country that only just recently lost it’s status on the travel warning list alongside Haiti, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Somalia (among others of course). Facebook is categorically blocked by the government here… or at least it supposedly is. At internet cafes, you just configure your browser an HTTP proxy so that it thinks it is somewhere else in the world. I didn’t know this, but saw a 10 year old girl playing “Fashion World” or something on Facebook so I asked her awkwardly how I could get on. She pulled up the advanced internet settings on my browser and typed a 11-digit number into a few fields by heart. I then went to Google, and it took me to Google: Sri Lanka instead. Her little brother was playing a game where you click on various buttons and it makes George Bush dance. He got bored of that and started to play “Twilight Makeover” instead – the next time I looked at his screen there was a large picture of Edward from Twilight with orange spiky hair.

Then, I tried to finalize some purchases I had made on eBay and pay for them with PayPal. I went to my PayPal and tried to complete a purchase, but got this message instead:

Error 3028. You have accessed your account from a sanctioned country. Per international sanctions regulations, you are not authorized to access the PayPal system. For more information about your PayPal account status, contact complianceverifications@paypal.com.

Okay. Again, another strange discontinuity between how I feel living here and how American officials feel about me living here. I figured out how to pay with another internet paying method. But then after trying to log into eBay, I received this:

Hello bobodickie (bowman.g.dickson@gmail.com),

Your eBay account appears to have been used without your permission.

We’ve already taken steps to secure your account. Your credit card information is stored on a secure server and can’t be seen by anyone. We’ve also reset your password and secret question.

So the only reason someone would access their account from Syria is if they were an evil internet auction pirate, attempting to illegally bid on retro t-shirts, Harry Potter books and DVDs of Mythbusters (for class!). Perhaps they do that with all unrecognized places from which you access your account, but I highly doubt that a French IP address, or a Canadian one would prompt the same response.

It’s hard for me to rationalize the existence of such wonderful people and such a richly historical, peaceful city in such a hated country, but I guess I’m glad to be having the problem of associating [state sponsored terrorism, breaches of individual freedom, an oppressive government with a bad reputation] WITH the people here rather than the problem of separating [these things] FROM my tutor, my host, my students, the culture, Arabs…

I”m certainly not looking over my shoulder for suicide bombers when I walk around the city.

Fasting for Ramadan

Ramadan is quickly approaching (tomorrow!).  It’s certainly not mandatory for anyone to fast, but out of respect for those that are, you aren’t really supposed eat or drink anything in public. That shouldn’t be a big problem for me though because this year, I am going to try fasting. I have sort of been uncomfortable in the past with non-Muslim foreigners attempting to fast, because it feels almost like an invasion of something sacred that people turn into a game, or a gimmick. But I have been curious for a while and was urged by some of my students to try it, which makes it more like being invited to a party than crashing one. Plus, most of the food I eat here is street food anyway, so if I can’t have street food during the day, I might as well not eat anything at all.

Okay, that trivializes it a bit. I’m definitely taking this seriously, though I am a little nervous, to be totally honest. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is pretty much a divine injunction for all able bodied Muslims, but there are other reasons I see for the practice that are more accessible for someone outside the faith like me. For one, it is an astounding show of discipline, something that I know I personally lack in my life, and a show of piety, if it’s possible to use that word in a secular sense, a devotion to what is good and avoiding sins/transgressions/even excess. I also see it (and have heard this a few times before) as an exercise in really sympathizing with the world’s poor, struggling, starving and needy, which is one of the main reasons that I am very curious to see how if feels to go hungry from 4:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night (and then see if I can repeat that about 30 times).

Ramadan has a not-so-directly-related-to-Islam significance too. Just as Christians gather with their extended families for Christmas, families here hop around to various relatives to break the fast. I’ll probably just go find street food.

Which is a good segue to a list of my favorite (mostly street) foods in Damascus:

8. Water – I sweat like a octopus here, it’s insane. I have been drinking over a gallon of water a day and I still pee like once every full moon. I am incredibly nervous about this during Ramadan, because I wont be able to drink any water for about 15 hours a day. I plan on waking up at 4:15 every morning and chugging some good old H2O and then going back to sleep.
7. Pistachios – I know you can get these anywhere, but pistachios are the best, and their Arabic name is fustuq halabi (فستق حلبي) which means Peanuts from Aleppo, a town in Northern Syria. Which means they have to be better here.
6. Cactus fruit – These are sold all over the city (and in Amman too). Picture a prickly orangish/yellowish pear, but symmetrical like a rugby ball, with a similarly colored inside about the same consistency of a pear (actually, maybe softer). They are good, but have large soft seeds all through them that you just have to eat, which can get frustrating. It’s really cool when they display them still attached to the cactus plant.
5. Shawerma – These sandwiches are truly ubiquitous, probably even in the US  (Shawerma = Doner in Turkish p.s.) and have constituted give or take roughly about 100% of my dinners here. Shawerma consists of meat shaved off of a huge rotating meat cylinder, mayonnaise, very minor vegetables (if it’s still considered a vegetable in pickle form) and delicious sauces that come from the big rotating meat cylinder. I like my foods top heavy in terms of the Food Pyramid, thank you very much Kimball Elementary School.
4. Toot Shami – The word literally means Damascus Berry, but I think the English translation is Mulberry (not sure about that). Whatever it is, the juice is freakin’ amazing. It has a bit of a fermented edge (party) it and a certain unbeatable sweetness – awesome. I’m glad Arabs are all about the juice.
3. Fatteh – The only food on this list that’s not a street food, Fatteh is a Syrian specialty. It is one of those foods that tastes much better than it looks, which is good, because I think it kind of looks like a baby threw up into a bowl because he had been sneakily eating solid foods when his little baby digestive system couldn’t handle it. It’s some sort of yoghurt and ghee (cooking butter of some sort?) with pita chips consistency chunks of bread (though softened by the fatty atmosphere) and chicken or another protein of some sort. 100% delicious, though it may or may not go right through your system if you aren’t used to it… even if you have a less than desirable bathroom situation in a small apartment that you share with a few others, including a very wonderful older lady…
2. Bakdash – I’ve written about this before I think, but right in the middle of the most bustling, busy, crazy market is this awesome ice cream shop where they serve this vanilla-like flavor rolled in pistachios (see #7). It’s quite a battle to get in there, order your ice cream, and then get out without dropping it on an Iranian pilgrim or a 10 year old Syrian boy, but the battle is definitely worth it.
1. Jellab – And last but not least, probably the first thing I will get when the sun rolls down every day this month, is Jellab. I’m not sure exactly what it is – I looked it up online and it said “a syrup made from grape molasses” – but it’s deliciously served as a Syrian slushee, perfect for these scorchingly hot days. Actually, I love any flavor of slushed drink around (and there are many), but Jellab is certainly the bast.  I’m already a regular at a shop down the street from Um Bassam’s house and plan on keeping that status.

Cheers, and RAMADAN KAREEM! رماضن كريم

Conversations with Um Bassam

Um Bassam told me when I moved in that we need to drink coffee together every morning… to which I replied “I don’t drink coffee”, though I left out the “for the 21st time” floating around in my head. So I drink tea and eat cornflakes while she sits and watches me eat and we talk. A sampling of the conversation this morning (keep in mind this is in Arabic, so sometimes comprehension isn’t 100%):

  • She told me the story from Christian folklore of St. George slaying the dragon, which lasted about 15 minutes. I had no clue it was so complicated. George’s Arabic name is Jiryis.
  • We talked about the neighborhood and she said it had everything, and everything to her meant an internet cafe (which I doubt she’s ever been in) and a doctor.
  • Then she told me a story about a man from her town (Ma’lool) who accidentally swallowed a bunch of nails (still a little confused about the details of this one). He went to the doctor for X-rays and the doctor told him he would die. But then he went to the monastery and drank some oil (?) and then when he went back to the doctor the nails were in his hand instead of his stomach. Miracle!! I think I am definitely missing some details there.
  • And then I showed her Jordanian currency, which she had never seen before, despite living about an hour from the Jordanian border.

So far, she’s been far more helpful than the tutor… and definitely more interesting.

Um Bassam

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.

Back! But relocated temporarily

Well, I’m back in Arabia and pretty pumped about life, though I’m in Syria instead of my beloved second home of Jordan. I did stop by Jordan for a few interludes – after spending a month in the states I came back to pick up students to go to India (many blog post quality stories from that for sure) and then stopped by again for another short period before making my next move up North one country… and even though I’m not in the region for all that long because I’m going back to the states at the end of the month for two weeks, there’s already so much that has happened in just a day and a half that I am itching to write about, so I figured I would start back up again.

THE POINT OF COMING TO SYRIA: I spent four years at UVA toiling over Arabic to come out with a frustratingly little functional language skills (I might do better analyzing a famous poem than asking for directions on how to cook a sheep) and then have spent the past year in an English speaking island located in a sea of people who speak better English than I speak Arabic (all year I would try to talk to people in Arabic only to have them respond in English, and less because I have bad Arabic but more because they have good English, from the gas station attendant to the supermarket cart collector)… so my Arabic, at a very incomplete stage with many gaps needing filling, has plateaued. I’m frustrated to say the least – which is the impetus for this trip 4 hours North to a place that is more conducive to learning Arabic.

THE PLAN WHILE I AM HERE: I am really excited about this and hope that it really propels my Arabic. I am taking 45 hours of one on one instruction over a course of about 2.5 weeks (which is intense, about 3 hours a day). It’s costing me some moo-lah, but I think it will be well worth it (and besides, I don’t have any babies or puppies to pay for yet, and DVDs are only $1.40 in Jordan, so it’s not like my salary has anywhere better to go). On top of the formal instruction, I will have ample opportunity to practice with people here who generally speak much less English than Jordanians (and a little bit more French – do you know your Middle Eastern colonial history?). Already, I stayed up until about 2:30 am exchanging proverbs and idiomatic expressions with the guy who worked at the hotel I stayed at for one night (in Arabic, when your leg falls asleep, it has ants all over it, cool!) and I keep seeing more opportunities like this pop up all around me.

So, basically, great decision for me and I’m totally pumped. I have so much to say already, but I will save it for other blog posts. Tomorrow, I’ll write about my accomodations…

Dimashq دمشق

Living in Jordan instead of the US reminds me of living in New Hampshire as opposed to Texas – from my home I could drive about 2.5 hours and reach 6 different states or Canada, where Texas is more than 12 hours across. From here in Amman, it takes only a few hours driving to reach a different country, and instead of just being in Upside-Down New Hampshire instead of right-side-up New Hampshire, you end up in a completely different culture. That’s what I did this past weekend when I took a two-day trip to Damascus (Dimashq, دمشق, in Arabic).

The trip itself was very smooth, only due to the help of a Syrian student here. His family helped us get visas (we met Americans at the border who had been waiting 9 hours!) and offered us a ride to and from the city right from school (since he goes home nearly every weekend in a pretty big car anyway). Then, when we were there, his family took us out to one of the biggest meals I have ever eaten. Truly Arab hospitality, very hard to beat.

But Damascus was a really wonderful place – it feels like you are transported a few centuries back into the past with the old, wandering streets filled with people. Highlights included being invited into a backgammon board (and other handicraft) workshop, watching the sunset and the lights come up over the city from above, taking a Turkish Bath, visiting one of the most magnificent mosques in the world and Syrian ICE CREAM! Below is a picture of me trying to fight the crowd to deliver the Syrian Ice Cream, which was a delicious vanilla-type flavor rolled in pistachios. I posted a ton more pictures on the pictures page, in addition to an album of pictures that I have taken from the windows of planes. Cheeeck it out.