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.

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