Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Plan

Yesterday, my visa came in the mail. My plans are now as official as they get.  God willing, on August 31, I will fly to Cairo, Egypt, the Mother of the World.

I'll spend six days there hanging out with my friend Brian, meeting old friends, and exploring parts of the city I didn't see during my semester there two years ago.

After that, I will fly from Cairo to Damascus, Syria, where I will spend nine months at the Kinesat al-Zeitoon (Olive Church) in the Old City, living with Syrian teenagers, taking Arabic classes during the day and tutoring the students in English in the afternoon.  My goals are pretty simple: 1) See most of what there is to see of Syria - Palmyra (ancient Roman city), Lattakia (on the Mediterranean), and Malulu (where they still speak Aramaic), for starters, 2) become conversational (at the very least) in Syrian Colloquial Arabic (a dialect spoken in most of Syria, Jordan and Palestine), 3) make some lasting friendships with Syrians, 4) keep writing on this blog throughout.

After May 2011, the plan gets murkier.  But for now, that's okay.  I feel blessed beyond belief to have this opportunity, and I plan to make the most of it.  To what end, I have no idea.

Before I leave, I need to finish going through my copy of Syrian Colloquial Arabic (Level 1).  Encouragement, please! (iza betriidon!)

Now, some photos of Damascus, interspersed with some  fast facts about Syria:

  • Since the U.S. dominates the aerospace industry, U.S. sanctions on Syria have forced the Syrian government to ground most of the country's civilian air fleet, along with the president's personal jet.

  • Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, inherited the presidency from his father, Hafiz al-Assad, in 2000.  Assad the elder took over Syria in a military coup in 1970.  Bashar was an ophtamologist in London until his older brother, the heir apparent, was killed in a car crash in 1994. 

  • Damascus, the capital, is claimed by its residents to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city on earth.

  • Over one million Iraqi refugees live in Syria.

  • Syria, along with Iran, is a key sponsor of the Shiite Islamic Lebanese politicaly party/militant group Hezbollah (The Party of God).  Hezbollah was formed to resist the Israeli occupation of Lebanon.  Since Israel's occupation of Lebanon ended in 2000, Hezbollah justifies its continued attacks on Israel by claiming that the Shebaa Farms, an area of the Golan/Syrian Heights, Syrian land still occupied by Israel, is really a part of Lebanon, not Syria or Israel. (Got all that?) Paradoxically, Syria supports this claim.  The Shebaa farms are 5.5 miles wide and 1.5 miles long.  In other words, one could run all the way around them in a half-marathon.  Over 1,000 people died in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.

  • According to the U.S. government's Overseas Security Advisory Council, "Unlike many other capital cities around the world, Damascus enjoys a low crime rate. This is probably due to the pervasive police presence around the city, as well as traditional Syrian culture." Nice! (The traditional culture and low crime rate part, I mean.)

  • However, the State Department's travel website warns, "While most Syrians appear genuinely friendly towards foreigners, underlying tensions can lead to a quick escalation in the potential for violence. In a few recent examples: an American reported being verbally harassed and told 'you Americans are not welcome here' after he avoided stepping on an Israeli flag that had been placed on the ground in a shopping area." 

  • The State Department's website also advises Red Sox fans not to wear fan apparel on visits to the Bronx.

  • The last time I went to Damascus was only a few days after U.S. forces attacked a Syrian village on the border with Iraq, killing eight people.  Anonymous U.S. officials claimed the strike was aimed at an Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terrorist cell.  Things were a little awkward on my visit, to say the least.  However, as the State Department helpfully notes, everyone I met there appeared genuinely friendly. (My guess is, it's because they are genuinely friendly.  But as everyone knows, Arabs are oh-so-crafty.)

That's all for now.  Tomorrow I return to my job calling businesses to verify employment for loan applicants.  I've read eight books so far this summer, and I hope to post some book reviews here soon.  I'm currently reading Living in the End Times by Slavoj Zizek.  So far, it's wildly entertaining but not very accessible (to me).  For the uninitiated, Zizek is a populizer of neo-Marxism.  If that upsets you, blame the initiated (you know who you are.)

Enjoy the summer, everyone! 


  1. Joel, Glad to hear you got your VISA. Congrats Man, your on your way!!!

  2. Congratulations on getting what you want! You will have an amazing time for sure.

  3. Joel you crazy person. I've only read about 4 books! Have you heard of the Saga of the Seven Suns by Kevin Anderson? I'm on the third book at the moment, and it's a 7-book series. Totally a sweet science fiction series! Maybe sometime we'll have to do a book swap.

    8 books. For Pete Sake! Do you do anything else with your time?

  4. Zach and Robert - thanks!

    Neal - is that the book you bought in Barnes and Noble that one time? And yes, yes I do. I work full-time and take care of my friend's cats while he's in Australia and I watch Indiana Jones with my little sister.

  5. Dude! Good Luck! Tell Brian I said Hey!

  6. Thanks CJ! I'll tell him for sure. You are getting married soon! Congrats, man. I hope everything goes well.