Hellies coming

Hellies coming tonight. Everyone I know hear says ‘wow. Your friend must really like you,’ when I tell them. Then they’re shocked when I admit I’m not intending on meeting her 20 past 3 flight. In an attempt to mollify them my friends arranged for his friends father, whose a taxi driver, to go and get her for half the price charged by the official airport taxis. Damascus is definitely a friends friends fathers kind of place. We’re going straight to Palmyra, which may have camel racing on, for the European weekend.

Yesterday a friends friend had a party in his restaurant. Admission included unlimited free drinks, and was priced at 600 SY for men, 400 SY for women, and 50 for practicing Muslims. it was an odd occasion. with no one taking money at the door punters wandered around offending various Arabs and Turks by assuming they worked their and attempting to pay them. If i was staging an event that relieyed on people not drinking to make me a profit i probably wouldn’t have had little bowls of salty free nuts either.

Life & Paperwork

I’ve finally got my rental contract, just in time for Iqamas, or residency permits, to take their place as everyone’s paper based boring topic of conversation. Getting my contract was immense. It involved being taken to a poky little office in Bab Tuma and being sat nestled between a bust of Hafiz Assad and a giant wedding cake while a bunch of men stared at my passport and argued how best to pronounce my name, while i stared at the painting of a man, who has to be Irish, sat with a bottle of wine.

This picture was familiar to me, as I’d spent quite a lot of the weekend in a bar that can sit about 8 called Abu Georges. Its clientele is about 50/50 locals and language students and the Irish man hangs in a prominent position.
The was a street music festive on Straight street, Friday night, and Abu Georges was conveniently located so we could hear the jazz from mushroom park and the Bazook playing from down the road at the same time. Despite being one of the few public spaces in Damascus that takes your money and doesn’t feel like an upmarket cafe, its the only one where the ‘no smoking’ signs are adhered to, so we sat outside in the warm night, watching the people weave in and out of the flow of taxis. It was good.

The Iquama situation is less good, in that i was supposed to get it today but they couldn’t find my passport. inshalla I’ll get it tomorrow, other wise I’m stuck in Damascus when Hellies hear

Changes. Chchchchanges

My landlord come into my room, scattering refrigerator ash and icons of the virgin all over it. 

‘Olay’ he bellowes. ‘What are you doing?’

I’m sat on the floor of my room, writing out all my vocabulary in neat. all the words starting with ا on one piece of paper, all the words starting with ب on the next… I’m going to stick them round my room, It’ll be like a dictionary of words I’m supposed to know.
‘This is a very bad way to study. very messy.’
He picks up one of my bits of paper and glares shortsightedly at it.
‘Do you know the word raaaRG’ he asks, or at lest thats what it sounds like.
‘you must know this word. It is VERY important’ he teaches me to pronounce it, and writes it out carefully for me in Arabic.
‘What does it mean?’
‘That I do not know.’

My new house is higher on romance and atmosphere than mod cons or structural integrity, but Damascus is much better at romance than practicality, so I’m playing to the cities strengths here. When in Rome and all that…

The front door lets in to a large room, compleatly dominated by the stairs, which seem just as dodge now I’ve seen them and are positioned to use the maxmium amount of space posible. The worst steps are close enough to the floor that a fall wont be fatal, though, so thats OK. the’s a raised sky light/cupola above them which is missing a significant chunk of roof.

The Landlord stores various bits and bobs downstairs, and acording to A’hmed a man rents a room as his damascus adress, but hes never in town. We all live upstairs. All the rooms apart from mine are arranged around the gently fading balcony that runs round the inside of the courtyard. the coartyard is three pronged, directly below us is a broken fountain and moden tileing but the center has a lime tree and olives, which are irrigated by someone though the fruit is now rotting on the branches. Around the call for evening prayers someone builds a nargila and we gather around. As the sun goes down we gradualy loose sight of the peaches and oranges in next doors courtyard, only the sent of jasmin remaining as we chill. The two dusty palms in the school play ground beyond stand silouted against the sky, late into the night.

My room has a paté pink cealing and top 5 cm of wall. the bottom meter and a half is paté brown. the paté is seperated by pastasio green. being in it is a bit like being iside one of those tricoulored icecreams. The one plug& light switch is hanging on at an intresting angle and needs to be wedged a certain way to work. I’m going to get some tape to stick it on the wall properly, though I’m not going to start useing it with wet hands.

Nisreen assures me that in the winter needing to go outside to shower or use the kitchen will be annoying at best, and cause frostbite at worst. while i take her point that my house and its high cellings are built to disapate heat, not insulate,  we’re still in the low 30s  tempreture wise and I can’t belive in winter.                 ………………………………………………………………..

I’ve also changed class. My old one was dominated by an Iranian in his early 30s, who told me and Lekia that it was very easy. Why were we struggling? we must work. We bloady are, our native languages aren’t writen in the arabic script and have nothing in comman with Arabic. I might also find it easier if i spoke 3 languages allready.

The teacher was always late, inaprochable and spoke no english. The style of teaching didn’t work for me at all and I pretty much never understood what was going on.

I’ve got them to move me. I was aiming for this guy who we had one day when our own teacher didn’t show up, but I’ve got some one else. She uses english when her students dont understand and lessons are both more structured and more interactive. Its great. More about this another time I think.

Ups and Downs

This, my friends, is beer. Lebanese beer.I had one! Not bad, in a largery kind of way.

I was invited to a house party given on Thursday by a friend of a girl at the institute, and managed to negotiate an eta back of midnight. ‘Oh yeah,’ I thought. ‘that’s quite a rise from 9.30pm, the haggling in the Souk el Hamdie must be rubbing off on me. combined with a degree in argument and persuasion I’m unstoppable.’

We met in a cafe at Bab Tuma, the main gate into the christian quarter of the city, which we rampaged through looking for each other and buying beer before being led down an alleyway and up stairs that made me glad I was at the front of the crowd, and hence not going to be trusting my life to them after they’d had all of us undermining their structural integrity. At the top we found Ahmed, whose house it was, and Paul, who was responsible for the party. I hadn’t met any anglophones and I was getting very board of talking slowly for the foreigners , so I was excited to meet Harry, a monosyllabic Aussie, and Paul, an Irishman with a degree in International Politics from a certain world renowned university on the Welsh coast. Harrys monosyllabic nature was a bit of a disappointment, but Paul and I enjoyed reminiscing about departmental characters.

Mareike, a tall, slightly awkward German girl, who decided she wanted to study Arabic after acidentily going to Jordan rather than Gana in her gap year, and I made like Cinderella before the party really got going. As we walked back we planned to spend Saturday hiking from Sedynia or Mal’ula, Christian villages in the mountains near Damascus.

Friday was a quite day of study, until I went to an internet cafe to print out more copies of my passport so I can get my rental contract. After discovering that my family had sold their house this seemed like a pointless activity and I went home to talk to them about it.
I’m mainly board by the whole thing, but I am annoyed that they didn’t tell me themselves, and didn’t let me know straight away. They say they had to tell Muhamed Iskander, whose company set me up with them, first.  I’m also annoyed that they haven’t said ‘sorry, I know its deeply inconvenient.’ instead its being treated as the will of god, something we have no control over. They want a ground floor apartment, as Hanadi, the second daughter, won’t leave the house on her own, and the Mothers quite old to be going up and down stairs all the time, which is fair enough. But I don’t believe that in Syria (where regestering for the libary involves handing over copies of your passport, a photo and your student card, then getting a second card to take books out, and a third to take them in) you can sell your house in two days. They’d been prone to flinging theire arms round me, playing with my hair and telling me they loved me, they were my sisters and they thought of me as a third unmarried daughter, which I’m a bit British to appreciate. I’m more anoyed about it now. Their response to me needing a rental contract ASAP is ‘in Syria we have many students from (long list of countries). The government is used to students from (long list of countries). nobody minds if you overstay your visa.’ Then long conversations with Muhamed Iskander about how much money I should get back. Give me the Belfry as Friday night entertainment any day.

I met Mareike and Nisrene, a Dutch Muslim who wants to learn the language of the Koran before taking up accountancy, as planned and complained about being told I had a week to find a new place on our way to Sedynia.

We sat outside the convent of Sedynia, sucking a Syrian take on the Twister with an obceanly red inside that left us looking like 8 year olds who’d been at theire mothers lipstick. Nisrene was amazed by everything she’d seen, specifically how like her hijab the nuns habits were. She had only flip flops and found the concept of walking long distances in the sun on rough ground for pleasure so confusing we relented and jacked in the hiking. Instead Mareike and I scrambled around on some rocks. She suggested I get hold of Pauls number. Hes been hear for two years, has abandoned teaching English and is now employed to make translations of the works of a 19th century sheik readable. (He says getting the text to flows not too hard, but making it readable is beyond him.) Mareike pointed out that, as the Damascus expat scenes man in the know and general fixer, he should be able to sort me out with something better than I could find myself, and anyway it would be easier.

A string of text messages and phone calls later and the upshot of it all is i’m sat in an internet cafe printing out lots of documents so I can move into a small room in the house we had the party in. I’m joining three wannabe dentists, from Turkey, Italy and Venezuelas Syrian comunity respectivly, and an Australian girl whose studying at the same institute I’m at. Italys refusal to teach its children English means that the lingua franca was Arabic, and now we don’t have one. I’m sure we’ll live.

Look what I got in my inbox

arabesk studies in damascus to me
show details 3:53 AM (16 hours ago)


how are you?

i have a small problem because the family just informed me that they cancel the contract for renting because they have sold the flat. they never informed me of this and they took us by surprise. they have to deliver the house this week.

YOU have got a small problem? YOU have a SMALL problem? And they informed you at 4am? Somehow I doubt that. I think you sat on this for an evening at lest.

do you have friends that know rooms in Bab Touma or Old City?

if you want, we can assist you looking for rooms. i have some phone numbers contact or websites.

please let us know.

as it is only one month you are in the famiuly, we will refund you the rest of your money

Mate, you are refunding me every night I havn’t slept theire, none of this rounding up bollocks.

sorry for the inconveniences.

Muhammad Iskandar

I need a rental contact ASAP or I’m going to be back on Mendip within a month. I do not need this.

Mohamad ‘really pretty usless’ Iskander sent me a text message asking me to check my email when I got the chance, but I didn’t expect this. He could have called. The family, who I live with, could of told me. This is, in a word, gay.

‘The Cave Exhibition.’

My last few posts might give the impression that I’ve been spending more time attempting to learn Arabic than taking advantage of Damascus’ tourism opportunities. This impression is for the most part correct. Its hard work, and all the museums and such things keep the same hours as the various government ministries I’m frequenting like a lost ghost.

However, among other cultural activities, I have visited the Sayyida Rouqqya mosque. Bulit in 1993 and the main Mosque (masjed in Arabic. Who even knew ‘mosque’ wasn’t Arabic?) in the Shia quarter of the old city, visiting it is a bit like being inside a Christmas decoration with rather more slightly hysterical people than will comfortably fit.

The highlight was probably the toilets. At the entrance black clad women fight over an assortment of flipflops and crocs, having of course taken off their own shoes.

On the way to the old Customs Khan I saw a large sign pointing to ‘The Cave Exhibition.’ Of course I followed it, and its slightly smaller sign friends through a souk selling bejeweled evening gowns and accessories. The Cave Exhibition had nothing to do with caves, and wasn’t an exhibition; it was a labyrinthine shop selling inlaid wooden boxes and table cloths. None the less it made me very happy. One of the various small stone rooms had, in addition to the standed carving and inlayed marble, a glass cupboard covered in stickers. The BEC get everywhere.


In any other news I’m spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to sort out my residency permit, which is currently in a bureaucratic limbo, along with my rental contract which I need to move the permit along. Hence spending so much time in internet cafes, emailing people for 3 minutes then trying to fill up the rest of my quarter hour.

Intresting facts about Arabic

Traditionaly the bedu have been able to select one of about 1000 words for theire camal depending on its age, sex condition, weather its pregnant (and if so how pregnant), and wether its any good as a camal. In ‘Arabian Sands’ Thisinger spends a lot of time failing to lern them. He also spends alot of time lamenting the fact that the advent of 4×4 not only heralded the death of this vocabulary, but the knowlage that that vocabulary contained. the are a mere 50 words for ‘date’.

Bertrand Russel once claimed ‘life is too short to learn Arabic.’

The is no future tense in Arabic.

the average English tabloid reader has an active vocabulary of 3000 words. An Arab of the equivalent socioeconomic and educational background uses around 10,000 words on a day to day basis.

I cannot think of a fith intresting fact.

‘If paradise be on earth, it is, without a doubt, Damascus; but if it be in Heven Damascus is its counterpart on earth’

Ibn Jubair, 12 centuary.

The weather is absolutely perfect. you could ware a little summer dress and not be too cold, or jeans and not be too hot. I’ve been going over my Arabic lessons sat outside various old city coffee shops, drinking small sweet cups of coffee and watching the city happen. Some of them have courtyards with fountains and jasmine, away from the day to day bustle of life.
Then I take my Arabic back to my house, sit on the balcony and go over it again, wondering whether I’m ever going to be able to remember the word for ’round object.’ I have particular difficulty with that one.

The Ministry of Agriculture – Syrian Style

Amal, the english speaking member of my family, works at the syrian agricultural ministry. Shes the only english speaker  in her department, and apparently spends a lot of time talking about olive production with the only english speeker in the Italian agricultural department.

despite having no language in commen with me her couleges were all desperate for us to meet and last week I poped in to say hi.

In Amals office the were 8 people, 5 desks, a stove and a side covered in coffee things. One woman was filling in some forms, when she rembered about them. another was in chage of anserwing the phone. everyone else was drinking coffee with the dedication you’d expect of people whos job was, in effect, to drink coffee. The were 3 things that looked like ledgers, and one in tray. I was taken on a tour of the building, which contained three computers, plus Amals laptop which is usefull for playing Arabic pop music. we saw another one person working.

Amal explained that they have 2 quite big bosses, and one big boss. noone likes the big boss, because he dosn’t like the never ending sochial whirl of tea parties and coffe drinking that is office life. luckily hes often with the minister. If anyone wants to go out they tell the two less important bosses, who cover for the errent worker if the big boss asks for them. the less bossy bosses claim to have sent whoevers not theire somewhere before texting them and telling them to get back, quick.  What a civilized systam. I tryed to explain the concept of being fired for not doing your job, but Amal thought i was joking.

In theory I am a big fan of Kensyan economics. Isn’t it wonderfull that the econonmy is being stimulated? look, Amal is going to buy air con for the kitchen. the Air con man can afford to eat! everyones self worth is mentained by the knowlage that they are gainfully employed, and creating jobs for women undermines the patriacal systams which not only repress women but also stops half the countries brains and tallent contributing to the nations development.

In practice, I just dont feel like that about it.

That said it was far more entertaining than visiting dad at work. two of the men asked me to marry them and a woman, litteraly, flung herself at me (i caught her) while telling me she loved me. Someone wound some one else up by explaining how people from Hama are wrong in the head (sign language is amazing). people gave me lots of coffee. Amal and I left to get Ice cream and everyone went to the other side of the building to wave at us.


I was chatting to some other girls during the break today (the Dutch contingents grown) when it emerged that I hadn’t done all the necessary helth checks to regester, though the institute hadn’t noticed. This is extreamly anoying, as the relevent ministry closes half an hour after class finishes, so I’ll have tomiss an afternoon. Oh well.

The is no school tomorrow as we are celebrating Syrias heroic showing in the Sixth of 0ct0ber war. I have my own opinion of Syrias preformance in that war which I really want to share with everyone, but I’m not going to.

First day at school.

I woke up, bright and early and immediately wished it wasn’t quite so early. First day being a foreigner getting taught Arabic at the Ma’had institute.

I was a bit worried I didn’t know what class room I was supposed to be in. What I had somehow not realized was that absolutely no one had any idea what class they were supposed to be in. the director read some names of a list, then walked away. All the names followed, wanting to find out why he’d read of their names. The rest of us also followed him, wanting to know why we weren’t on the list. eventually someone entered the swirling confusion.
‘beginners Arabic. room 12.’
Beginners Arabic all headed to room 12, where we gave the director our names and took a seat. that makes it sound orderly, but take my word for it it wasn’t. Maybe the intention was to give us a tour of the building, but apparently the director can’t write names on a list unless hes striding around, with a tail of students running after his waddling figure like they’re his ducklings.

I got the second last seat. Later students had to bring their own.
at just gone 10 the lesson started, with 30 odd in the room.
At 10.20 the director came back and called people out by nationality and sent them to room 11.

The class cut down to size, we began. It was pretty confusing. No language other than Arabic was being used, and it took me a bout three qauters of an hour to figure out I’d lernt ‘my, your (feminine), your (masculine) hers and his’ name and I You, You, His and Hers’ not ‘My, his, hers no idea and no idea.’

My teacher may not be one of those rare students to get an A* in the Arabic equivalent of TEAFL, unlike a certain Ms Parker who I’m proud to call a friend, but equally I know this way of learning doesn’t suit me. Time, methinks, to track down an old fashioned book of Arabic grammar and a private teacher for the afternoons.

After class some of the other girls and I went to pick up the results of our mandatory aids test. Lots of the other students are either from the non Arabic speaking Islamic world, or Japan & South Korea. The overwhelming majority of the European kids are German, though Italy, France and Holland can also boast a pupil each. They all seem quite nice.The is one woman who had her son, aged about 6, with her. He was well behaved, but if the teacher is going to continue teaching him as well as us we are going to be their for quite a while.