Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tomatoes and Free Time

My boys are here.  The other day, I was eating lunch with all twenty-three of them in the dining hall.  I think I mentioned before that I'm not yet comfortable with Syrian culture?  Well.  One of the boys asks me, "Beddak bendora?" Do you want a tomato?  Yes, I would.  But I don't have a knife to cut it with.  Before I can expalin this, he hands me one, and takes one for himself, and bites into it like an apple.  When in Rome, I think to myself, and start to eat my tomato the same way.

Father Mayas walks along the table monitoring el-shebaab (the young men.) He takes one look at me, throws me a knife and says, "Joel, don't eat like you're from Saudi Arabia."

That's all for now.  I am insanely busy this week and next week, and it's hard to make it to an internet cafe.  If you've sent me an e-mail, I really appreciate it, and will respond when I get the chance.  Just not now.  Sorry about the inconvenience.

Grace and peace,

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


This is how things sometimes go in Syria.

I am eating lunch with the priest in charge of the seminary, and three of the boys who attend it, Jan, Jon and Issa. Jan says something in Arabic to the priest. The priest (who speaks halfway-decent English) turns to me and says, “Jan wants to know if you want to go to Jedaydah with him.” All I know about Jedaydah is that it’s the hometown of Jan, Jon and Issa, it’s a suburb of Damascus, and its name is pretty similar to one of the multitude of Syrian Arabic words for “good.” (MniiH, helwa, kwayyis, tayyib…)

“Of course,” I say. “Tomorrow?”

“No,” the priest says. “Today.”

“Today? What time?”

“2:00,” he says.

I have four worksheets and three new verb forms to memorize for Arabic tonight. “Uh…OK!” I say. Hey, I’m in Syria, not college.

I rush to my room, throw some things in my bag, and walk to the bus station with the boys. The big green city bus takes us a short ways, but we catch a microbus to make the rest of the journey to Jedaydah.

What are microbuses?  Glorified 12-passenger vans. They’re basically the cheapest form of transportation in the Middle East. (Camels have to be fed. [Just kidding. I haven’t seen any camels here - and unlike Cairo, no donkeys or horses.]) They seem to go everywhere, and they’ll usually pull over for you if you signal them from the side of the road. Twenty cents lets you on board, and you can get off wherever you want, just by yelling at the driver to stop. In Egypt, drivers use hand signals to tell potential passengers their destinations. (The “surf’s up” hand wave means “Giza.”) In Damascus, some bright person thought to write their destination on a piece of cardboard and stick it in the window, and the idea caught on.  I appreciate that.

One last factoid: I have yet to find a microbus in the Middle East with enough space between the seats for my legs.

Anyway, Jedaydah. The town is on the other side of the mountain range the runs alongside Damascus, which makes for a pretty scenic drive. Jedaydah is squarely in the desert, which I love. There’s something about that vast sandy expanse that fills me with awe every time. The town itself is a lot like Damascus, but perhaps a little more rundown.

The reason my students wanted me to go with them on that particular day was that it was Eid es-Saliib, the Feast of the Cross. I’m not sure exactly what the feast commemorates, but it involves the Emperor Constantine discovering the location of the One True Cross, and something about fire on a mountain. Appropriately, the Christian residents of Jedaydah (a good percentage of the town, apparently), celebrate with huge bonfires and lots of fireworks. Issa set off a couple that briefly deafened me, but his grandmothers didn’t seem to mind. They laughed hysterically and lit a few themselves.

I had an afternoon meal with Jan, his brothers and his parents. None of them spoke English very well, but we had some conversation. At the start of the meal, I was handed a cup of tea, a thin circle of bread, and presented with eight bowls filled with different, unfamiliar foods. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go from here. This, I gathered, was wildly funny, and “just like Steven” (the American student who had this job before me.) At the end of the meal, Jan’s mother spread an unknown substance on another pocket of pita bread, rolled it up, and handed it to me. Not knowing quite what to expect, I bit into it, and tasted maybe the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted. It was a delightful shock. Of course, I couldn’t remember the Arabic word for sweet at the time (helu!) so they probably thought I was chocking at first.

Afterwards, Issa took me to a Greek Catholic (Melkite) mass. It was all in Arabic, and I only understood a few words. (“God,” “evil,” “amen.”) It was very ceremonial and very liturgical, and the priest walked around the sanctuary several times shaking a bowl of sweet incense. I asked Issa (who speaks more English than any of the boys I’ve met) to make sure I was doing everything right. He showed me the proper way to cross myself, and how to light a votive candle.

After church, I went to Issa’s grandmother’s house, and met most of his extended family. The house is at the edge of town, where the desert begins in earnest, and I was able to see the stars for the first time in two weeks. We had a delicious meal of chicken and potatoes grilled over a desert fire, followed by an extensive round of hookah (“argille,” or “hubble bubble pipe” here). Even Issa’s aunt joined in. Issa – sixteen years old - drank a glass of arak, a strong spirit, with his meal. He’s a big kid, but I was still a little surprised that his elders didn’t mind. To the contrary – they insisted that I try it. It tastes like black licorice.

The arak and argille were followed by an acapella Arabic song-and-dance session. Issa’s cousin Katrina drummed on a plastic chair, and Issa sang in deep, nasal baritone. I was forced into the dancing part. Syrians have a cruel sense of humor. Issa’s nine-year-old brother Ilyon took it upon himself to teach me Arabic. (I learned the words for “foot,” “fire,” and “firecracker.”)

I slept at Issa’s house (after watching Gone in 60 Seconds with Arabic subtitles), and took a microbus back to Damascus with him early in the morning to catch my Arabic class.

All in all, it was a wonderful night, and one you probably can’t find out about in a Lonely Planet guide. I feel like I was able to transcend the tourist effect and see how Syrians actually live and celebrate with each other. Once you go off the beaten path a little, it’s pretty easy. The people here are incredibly hospitable, even to people who can’t speak their language.

Other highlights from this week in Syria:

Going rock-climbing for the first time at a mountain near the border with Lebanon with my new friends Ben and Jordan.

Starting a new Syrian Colloquial Arabic class. Four hours a day, plus homework. Oof.

Trying to explain “emo” to a Syrian Catholic priest. Apparently, it’s catching on here. Thanks, Fallout Boy.

Listening to, and finally “getting” Sufjan Stevens’ new EP. It’s terrific.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ana fil Damascus!

Hello, friends and family. Today is my fourth day in Damascus. I am still adjusting to life here, still trying to figure out exactly how the city works, but I am doing quite well. I arrived here after spending five blessed days with my old roommate Brian Cassels in Cairo, Egypt. Photos of that week and of my first few days in Damascus are up on Picasa.

Last night, I went to meet an American friend who lives with his wife and little boy in the Old City. Since it had been three days since I had talked fluent English in person with anyone, I was eager to spend some time with them. We met at the Roman Arch, a two-story arch that juts into the Street called Straight (the street the Apostle Paul stayed on during his period of Christ-induced blindness). The Arch must have been much taller when it was originally built, but thousands of years of dust, construction and destruction have left the original Old City, and much of the Arch, below the ground. The Street called Straight is one of the widest streets in the Old City, which is to say, it is wide enough to allow for one-way traffic and some parking on the curb.

My friend greets me in beautiful American-English, and we exit the expansive street into the dark, winding alleyways of the Old City. We are surrounded on all sides by two and three-story apartment buildings that seem to flow into each other like a giant organism; we cannot see more than a hundred feet in any direction. After a few minutes’ walk, my friend stops at a random metal door in a wall, and says, “Here we are.”

His second-story flat is very nice, but the architecture of it all bewilders me. He shares an oddly-placed veranda with his oddly-placed neighbor, whose flat seems to form an L (or some Arabic letter) around my friend’s flat. There is a hookah shop just below my friend’s flat, recently converted from a cafĂ©. His wife worries that the second-hand smoke from the shop will flow into their young son’s room. They briefly discuss enlisting some of the neighbors to jury-rig a new chimney for the shop.

The night before, I had tried to explain to my Syrian Christian friend George why there are no buses where I live. This is why: in West Des Moines, everyone has a house, everyone has a car. In the Old City (and, I suspect, most of Damascus), people literally live on top of each other, or above and to the right of each other, or diagonally, or any other combination possible in three dimensions. I suspect there’s very little room for garages.

“Want to see the roof?” he says to me. Of course I do. We walk through his bedroom, onto a seemingly-purposeless annex that connects to his neighbor’s living room, walk through a ramshackle door onto the lower roof, and then shimmy up his neighbor’s wall onto the higher roof. (Confused yet?) From there, we can see the whole Old City, and much much more.

“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, both now and forever more,” the Psalmist wrote. If God had chosen Syria as the Promised Land, the Psalmist might have said the same thing about Damascus. From my friend’s roof, Mount Qassion seems surreally close, and thousands of multi-colored lights from the slums built into the mountain’s side light it up like a Christmas tree.

To the southwest of Mount Qassion, my friend tells me, we could see the mountains of the Syrian Heights if it were daytime. (The Syrian Heights have been occupied by Israel ever since the 1967 war. Israel and Syria are still technically in a state of war today.) Below Mount Qassion is Melki, where the President lives. To the northwest, my friend points out two isolated clumps of light. Right in between those clumps, he tells me, is Maluula, one of the three villages left in the world where people speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

From the roof, we search for the moon, but don’t find it. Our search is pertinent to the entire Muslim world, including the non-Muslims who live in it. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and this is the month of Ramadan, the month of fasting. If a full moon (or a new moon – we’re not sure) appears tonight, Ramadan will be over, and tomorrow will mark the beginning of the Eid al-Fitr, a weeklong celebration of feasting and prayer. But in any case, the official moon sighting, and the final decision, has to be made in Saudi Arabia.

As it turns out, the feast won’t start until September 10 – tomorrow, as I write this. The feast also means that the boys I will be tutoring will not arrive at the seminary until the 19th. I’m trying to use this time to prepare as best I can – learn how to get around Damascus, study Arabic, learn how to work the laundry machine, study Arabic, buy a cell phone, enroll in an Arabic class, study Arabic. I am living with Christians in a Christian part of town, but I hope to experience some of the Feast. Damascus is not nearly as chaotic as Cairo, but it should still be interesting.

There’s more to say, but I think this is enough for one post. I would appreciate your prayers during this time as I try to get used to living in this completely foreign city, amongst people who do not speak my language. I am very excited to be here, and getting more excited as I learn more about this place, but there is definitely an adjustment process to go through.

I hope this post finds you all well. If you know about this blog, there’s a good chance that I love you dearly and wish you could be here with me. Go with peace, my friends.