Syrian English

Language hear is not to be taken for granted. First theres the difference between Ameya (or colloquial Arabic) and Fussha (which at home is divided into modern standard and classical, though hear people just know how much Fusha to use in a situation). The is a simplified grammar and pronunciation and an entire second vocabulary for the street, as well the complexities of case endings and harkat in the classroom. peoples Ameya is almost inevitably better than their Fusha; its hard to motivate yourself to learn something you know you’ll never use when talking to someone.

Peoples arabic is almost taken as an indicator of there moral worth. I was told I ‘must meet Patrick, he works for the UNHRC, and speaks the most incredible Ameaya’. I’m quite happy with my Ameaya, buts its not helping my Fusha. I cannot ever rember that ‘oredu,’ means ‘ I want’ because I always use the Ameaya, ‘bidy.’

English, to, is not quite the language it is at home. spoken slower, some sentence constructions are favored over others. Orwell wrote that the English speak in phrases and dead metaphors, and he’s probably right. no one else uses our language like this though. either start constructing sentences from words, with all colloquialisms left in your luggage, or get very used to explaining yourself.

When Arabs use English various Arabic features come along to. In Arabic who did what in the past tense is expressed by the final harakat, or short vowel. In Chammie Ameaya, spoken here, the last harakat is always dropped.  Arabic’s vagueness about whether some thing  has, is or will happen is part of Syrian English. everything is in the present tense. It all combines to enhance the impression created by the shortage of information and lack of consistency of some kind of Kafkaesque world where no one understands anyone or anything. everyone floats around on words that are unanchored to their neighbors, one understands each word but has only the very vaguest idea of what is meant.

The are some important vocabulary differences between English English and the Syrian version. For Syrians POPULAR, for example, means poor, common. A (European) friend and I were walking through Dwala, dodging a football and kids as loud as they were dirty. ‘its a popular neighborhood,’ he commented. And if someone INVITES you for a drink accept- they’re offering to pay.

The Europeans, meanwhile, have other new words. various bits of Arabic have been adopted and added to the lingua franca, notably, ‘INSHALLA,’ ‘if god wills it’, ‘BUCKRA,’ ‘tomorrow,’ (do you see a theme developing here?) and KHALLAS, an incredibly useful word, the love child of ‘enough’ and ‘finished’. Then the is the secret police, so we may go on holiday to ‘DISNEY LAND,’ if we’re in a public place. However is the word SYRIAN that has accrued the most new meanings out here. while often an adjective (weather complementary or not tells you as much about the person using it as about whatever it is thats ‘syrian’), its also kind of the adverb equivalent of ‘akunamatata.’

O: ‘Hay Anne. I’ve got those fliers for Paul’s party. He said he’d try and make it hear this   morning, but he dropped some off last night just in case.’

ANNE, laughing. ‘Yeah. He can be very syrian about these things.’


O: I’ve just tried to collect my iqama, but they cant find my passport.’

ASSEMBLED COMPANY. ‘It’ll be ok. you’ve just got to be syrian about it. it’ll turn up.


GIRL ON BUS. ‘I hate public transport hear.’

FRIEND. ‘its so syrian. the serveeices are ok though.’

The worlds worst ‘caving’ weekend?

Caving with ACC is easy. And because I used to organize so much of it, it generally fitted with my schedule. I never organized it to include elderly services driven by smugglers intent on exploring the retail opportunities in duty-free. As much as we laugh at Chris’ driving hes never actually hit another car (just a fender bender, though the car then started making worrying noises). He almost always drives on the correct side of the road, unlike our servicee driver, who went through the Lebanese border the wrong way, leaving bemused men waving sub automatic machine guns at us. And I tended to know whether I organized a trip for the morning or the evening.
I had confirmed the rendezvous with Tony of ALES, but I was pretty certain that it was for the evening. after all to make it to Chatoura for 7.30AM I’d have to leave Cham at 4.30, and Sundays a weekday over hear, a spot of evening caving makes sense goddamnit. My assumptions aside using the phrase ‘PM’ instead of ‘the evening,’ over a dodgy Skype connection to a third language English speaker clearly wasn’t bright.

On arriving at Chatoura I quickly discovered my mistake. Oh well, I thought. I was adopted my a man, who took me on the serviecee to Beirut, driving over the breathtakingly beautiful Mount Lebanon range in the sunset. My Arabic was good enough to sustain a conversation that we both enjoyed, which made me want to dance. Ali was a Palestinian, and seemed quite keen to tell me about the war, although unfortunately my Arabic doesn’t extend that far yet.

After some faff at the hostel, which remembered me from my visit with Hellie, I went in search of a phone call to Pierre, who I was supposed to cave with on the Monday.

Lebanon is an odd little place. Poor Muslims seem as surprised as they are pleased to meet a European learning Arabic, and love to talk to me in it. At the other end of the scale are the people I’d never dream of talking Arabic to, who make me feel that my french is totally inadequate. What they have in common is a welcoming friendliness of a totally different flavour to that displayed by the Syrians. As I was walking to an internet cafe some guys belonging to Lebanese type B asked me if I was Ok, and ended up driving me and 4 Poles across town (and Beruit isn’t small) to an internet cafe. apparently the drivers uncle’s the chief of police, so he doesn’t need to obey the laws about seat belts.At the internet cafe the microphone didn’t work, but with some lateral thinking and a little help from my friends (cheers guys) it was arranged that Piere would pick me up from the Hostal in Geramazy, just north of the center. At this point I should probably explain that the middle east has yet to invent roaming charges, and once at the border Syrian phones just stop working.

Monday morning I woke, bright and early, and looked out of the window at a sniper on the roof of the opposite building. Pier never showed. I phoned, the owner of the hostel having gone and her place on duty been taken by a poor Syrian guy. Turned out he wasn’t allowed to take his car anywhere near central beruit, and that although he’d phoned the hostel no one had picked up. he agreed to wait for me in a Beruite suburb, so I left to get on a serviecee.

except i was told in no uncertain terms i wasn’t to leave the hotel for another two hours. It was Lebanese independence day, and the situation there at the moment is a bit unpredictable with a high-profile trial raising tensions (your clue as to what I’m talking about is 2007). with a parade in Beirut and the PM and co in attendance no one was taking any chances and Beruit was locked down. I did not see this as a nitty-gritty cultural experience.

After about an hour I tried again, walking away from the main road to the bus station. My Arabic somehow got me through the first check point, and after that they became easier. every road junction was blocked off with tanks. helicopters were over head, the were snipers on every building and I had a knife in my bag. eventually I made it to the bus station, which was closed. I walked the 3 Km Dowra and the edge of the locked down area and got a servieece to the rendezvous. unsurprisingly Piere had left.

I was adopted by a film crew, who took me along to their set and taught me some useful Arabic. they were chatting away to each other in a mix of Arabic and French. eventually though we had to be quite, which was pretty boring so I went to Babylos, which is kind of like a middle easter Abereron, with added ruins. I really liked it, and its hard to overstate how stunning Lebanon is, and it really shouldn’t be, seeing how developed the coastal strip is.

eventually it was time for me to head back to Damascus. Suffice to say that the is a reason that I’ve never organised ACC transport to include Saudi men armed with Arak and cheep perfume. I’ve told some of my friends hear about this, I get to the ‘au’ of Saudi before the start commiserating me.

To say Gulf Arabs aren’t exactly popular here is an understatement, they get a bit too excited to be out of the peninsula, often coming to Syria solely to sleep with Iraqi refugees forced to prostitute themselves. The word for ‘homosexual,’ a much worse insult here than in Wales, is also apparently the colloquial term for ‘Saudi’. I can’t remember it.

Tourism 7/10 caving 0/10

Garnish and Globalisation.

‘I’ll have a vodka and orange please,’ Mohammad asked the waiter, no one having explained to Syria that vodka mixers are for girls.

The vodka and orange arrived, but appeared to have a solid orange rectangle in it. On inspection this turned out to be a carrot.  Mohammad asked the waiter something, the usual impassioned Arabic followed. Eventually Paul turned to everyone and announced, with the air of a magician whose about to perform a particularly difficult trick, ‘He says its a garnish.’


My friend Nisreane is a Dutch Muslim. She is making her family’s Eid sacrifice (this is Eid – Afatar, where we celebrate Abrahams willingness to sacrifice Isac, before god revealed a handy ram caught in the bushes) in Syria, as its more cost effective. you can kill a bigger animal, so get more spiritual bang for your buck. They’re getting a fifth of a sheep. I find the idea of making your sacrifice in the most cost effective location really wiered.


I’m in an internet cafe to arrange caving. On Sunday I’m caving in Lebanon with ALES. They’ve found a couple of caves which look like they might have potential, but haven’t been entered yet. I’m oh so increadably excited, though obviously the is a good chance that their nothing. One appears horizontal, the other vertical. I’m going to stay around and get some more caving in on Monday, as the clubs taking its children underground. I’m going to imagine taking ACC round top.

Luner Park

We’re not talking Bret Eston Ellis hear, rather the shopping mall hel with a particularily Arab twist that sidetracked my attempts to go to Lebanon. Out by the air port and home to the worlds largest resturant (seating 6 thousand and 14) the complex is made up of fake louir vally chattaus, replecar palmyran ruins and mock crusader castles. Its hideous, but strangly hypnotic.
Liz, Sayid and I started off with bowling in a deserted building trying verry hard to be an american diner. Although the blareing music was western the middle eastern flavouring was given by the acamanying vidios of arab pop hits and the ash trays liberaly scattered under the non smoking signs.
after 3 enjoyable games, which i turned into a demonstration of chaos theory we concluded that Sayid was the winer. In surch of the 4D cinima, we went to the worlds largest resturant. While your waiting for your meal you can stroll around the ‘ruins,’ admire the waterfalls, marvel at a meteorite, buy crap, race go karts and even buy some corn on the cob from a nice man with a boiler. Did i mention that the Arab world does an amazing line in kitsch?
Unfortunantly the cinima was having problems with the fouth dimention and was closed.
undetered we went to ‘Ski land,’ in a Disney castle. on a small ice rink kids gingerly skated looking bemused and whereing bike helmets. This suprised me seeing as cycling and moterbiking in crazy traffic are activities for which a helmet is deamed unnecessary. The rink was overshaddowed by shitloads of shops and a massive pirate ship. being eid the whole place was rammed. it seems to attract the devout, unusually for the bits of Damascus my friends and I live (in the wider senmse of the word) in, the were lots of veiled women.
We dodged the crowds and entered the pireat ship. while this only showed short 3D films, and the the technology was along way south of Avatar the crowd was extremely enthusiastic. I’m not sure if the wasn’t a sound track, or if it was drowened out by the screaming. we emerged feeling rather sick and were once again confronted with the shops. the cloths on desplay bore the same resembilance to western fasion that the castle housing them did to 14th centuary military arcitecture.
we ignored the men selling street food and hopped in the car to go to ‘happy land.’ this was verry close, but the ideosyncratic road layout ment we passed alot of familys camped out by the road, smoking naggila and letting off theire eid fireworks. one entering the amusment park men were frisked in surch of bombs. noone bothered to check the womens handbags.
prahaps unsuprisingly given it was only 14 degrees the only ride that didn’t have a que was the water slide. equally unsuprisingly we got wet through, and were then cold. added adreniline was added by the knowlage syrias helth and safty regime is pretty lax (read non existant).

I know i sound like a supiriour little bitch in this entry; my sole defence is that i’d sound just as supirior had i been to a British low budget Vegas meets bister shopping village.

i’m caving in lebanon on monday. i know my english is appaling in this entry, i’ve done alot of studying today and it makes me stupid. our night did have a conclusion, but i’m going to a party now.


I’m still feeling incredibly tiered all the time, the Lebanese cavers seem to be the same sort of amiable faff as their British equivalents (we might go caving, we might not, we don’t really know whats going on, we might on Thursday, we might not) and Damascus is letting off fireworks, slaughtering sheep in the streets, smoking heroic quantities of nargilla and perving on girls. Exams are still looming, and i’m still unable to distingush my issam istfams from my fal. I really cannot rember the Arabic for ‘preposition,’ and I have only the vaugest idea of how one destingushes idafa useing tanween.

Should I stay or should I go now?

Holidays and stuff

Hellie and I have had a pretty action packed week, the first highlight of which was Palmyra, ‘The bride of the desert.’ It was indeed pretty spectacular, but had enough detail and small bits to allow you to get a handle on it.
I’d collected Hellie from the airport and we walked back to mine for an early Christmas. Lots of my friends had given Hellie cards for me, and they make me feel very loved. ACC seem to have had a paper and glue session, with lots of pictures of ‘social caving’ in their cards. my Neapolitan room looks much better adorned with them, a felt bat I assume Fran made me and a bottle of Potholer, all the way from Mendip. ‘Christmas’ nicely filled in the time till the first bus left for Palmyra at 6am.
A few hours and some bad sleep later we disembarked, found a hostel and hit the ruins by 10am. I’m going to cut the description short, partly as I don’t want to bore you but also because words utterly fail to convey its magic and beauty. We saw two tour groups and four sets of independent travelers on our first day there. It was nice having it so empty, but deeply disconcerting.
A highlight of our day was was strolling up the main street looking at the improbably blue sky above the low horizon, clouds framed by the colonnade, then walking through a hole in the town wall and finding an almost intact tomb tower with stairs that allowed us to scramble to the top and look at the whole site underneath us as we chatted.
our plan was an afternoon nap before viewing the ruins at sunset. As we went to bed at 4pm we toasted Hellies first 12 hours in Syria, only for her to sleep for her next 12!
our hostel was well located for a bevy of mosques to wake us at dawn, the call to prayer as iery and as beautiful as ever. Syria had put its clocks back the night Hellie arrived and predictably was confused by it. As part of this the mosques had woken us up well before dawn, and we had ample time to wander through the ruins under the stars, before choosing a place to sit to watch the sky lighten. The romance was enhanced by a Bedouin leading a camel up the colonnaded street. One of his fellow tribesman cruised by us on a motorbike.
‘Sabah hlkhra’ I said politely.
‘Sabah hlnoor,’ he replied, meaning, rather appropriately, ‘morning of light.’
We saw him repeatedly throughout the day. when we were visiting the valley of the tombs he thought we hadn’t had nearly enough warm gear on in the morning and gave us some directions, then later he eventually motored after us to tell us about an easier walk up to the castle on a volcanic crater that adds drama to Palmyra backdrop. Even though we were the only tourists the touts were so amazed that we’d walked up that they forget to try and sell us crap.
Before we headed out to the tombs and the castle the sky came alive with color as we walked through the ruins, laughing at the improbability of it all. As my grandmother had given Hellie 40 quid to wine and dine me we breakfasted an olive stone through from the ruins, at a posh hotel. everyone was confused by us, an affect we repeatedly had on people. the tables closest to the windows were reserved for a tour group, who pulled down the curtains to stop the sun getting into their eyes, so we sat outside, huddled under shawls like a pair of Victorian maiden aunts. we got Grans moneys worth from the buffet breakfast.

on our return from the castle we wandered through the oasis itself, on a raised path next to the carefully channeled, egg scented stream, looking at the pomegranates and dates, getting occasional glimpses of the ruins over the top of the palms and discovering a mosque nestling in them. We saw a man harvesting the dates. He was so surprised to see us he practically fell off his ladder, and almost begged us to take his photo.
Emerging from the palms we took a last look at the ruins and visited the museum and got on a bus back home so I could go to the Mahad and Hellie could explore the old city.

Back in Damascus a friend of mine had promised to take me to a poetry reading and introduce me to someone who edits an English language newspaper. Unfortunately she wasn’t there and I don’t think I did my job prospects any good at all when I removed the education editors hand from my leg and explained that i didn’t intent to discuss my privet life with him. this being the end to one of those interminable conversations I think of as very Arab where the point is circled repeatedly I missed quite a lot of the reading.
Hellie and I had expected striped pine, leather sofas and a young, bright crowd posing with poetry as a background.
The was leather furniture, and a lot of the crowd were young, but otherwise we discovered that thing about ‘assume making a fool of you and i’ or however you spell it. Everyone was listening to the poetry with an intensity only rivaled by the dedication they put into chain smoking and staring at Hellies hair. practically everyone was male. The drink of choice was Arak, and the was clearly no coffee to be had.
Arabic is a natural language for being rude in (perhaps why Arabs have spent so much time inventing elaborate ways of being polite) and for declaiming. A lot of the delivery was beautiful, and I even understood what some of the poems where about. we both enjoyed it once we’d got over our surprise. it was certainly an ‘interesting cultural experience.’


Other Damascus highlights included our trip to the hammam and the shia mosque in the old city, where enough of Hellies hair peeped out of her hood that some pilgrimages wanted there photo taken with her.
Soon though Lebanon beckoned for the weekend. One of my friends here said what he liked best about Lebanon was that, unlike in Syria, the girls had legs, what he found most confusing was the lack of Arabic on signs, and the whole thing felt European. we were keen to find out the truth. The best bit of our trip over the border was almost a disaster. for some reason we were kicked off the bus. we quickly established that we were not at the Charles Helou bus stop and that Hellies cash card was enabled for Libya, not Lebanon (the guy at her bank had warned her he took his holidays in Cornwall). with no hope ourselves of finding our location on one of the LP Beirut maps we dodged the traffic and went in to MacDonalds.
The boys working at MaccyDs eventually orientated us… On the map of Mount Lebanon and the Charouf. we asked about public transport into town. much impassioned Arabic followed and they concluded the was none. None of the MaccyDs boys understood what had happened. My Arabic didn’t really clear anything up, but it did charm them. Yet more impassioned Arabic. In the kitchen some people seamed to be getting out some old bike helmets.
‘fee mooterbike’ a man said
‘nham,’ and ‘yeah,’ Hellie and I replied respectively.
eventually it was decided that the best solution would be to allow the MacDonalds delivery boys, Ahmed and Hissan, to finish work early, put us on the back of there scooter and motorbike respectively and drive us to the hostel. Hellie, grinning, and I looked at each other.
‘I’m having the scooter, ok? I’ll loose my flipflops on the back of the bike.’
‘ok’ Hellie replied.
Away we went.

in terms of architecture, immigration and town planning the second half of the 20th century has not been kind to Beirut. While Damascus beguiles with alleyways and souks massive Beirut’s style is more about underpasses and flyovers that give a view over a sea of lights, of building sites, of huge, new, floodlit buildings and pockmarked remnants of any one of Lebanon’s wars. In short it is the perfect sprawl to view from the back of a bike.
‘Football Stadium’ Ahmed yelled to me as we sped past a building sporting a poster bearing the legend ‘Beirut by bike.
I just laughed for the joys of being young and alive, Hellie whooping behind me.
Eventually the boys rode next to each other and conferred. Do we want to have a coffee and nargela (a kind of waterpipe, called a shesha in Egypt and Israel)? We thought paying would be a good way to show our gratitude. A few swerves later and our expectations were confounded. our boys had taken us to Ahmeds brothers nargella delivery service. its ran out of a shipping container adorned with a parot called Coco and a poster of Hissan Nisrallia of Hizbolla fame, under a flyover which keeps the rain off the outdoor sofas and armchairs. The boys explained how they’d come to bring home two girls, instead of some left over Bigmacs and the brother produced two cups of espresso, the first proper coffee I’ve had in along time. We watched nargellas being put into baskets on scotter and cans of coals being ballenced in the footwell for lads to drive to destinations unknown as the boys tried to convince me to marry Hissan Nisrallia. I protested I was too young, but they assured me no matter what your age Hezbollahs secretary general would make the perfect husband.

We’re well aware that one is not supposed to behave like we did in the whole Beirut episode outlined above. we are totally unrepentant, though had rather more conventional fun in Balbaak and Tripoli.
After exploring Tripoli we crossed back into Syria in time for one last chilled day and a last night out (enlivened by us getting ourselves interviewed by the BBC for a program on unsavory aspects of the regime&its relationship with the people) before Hellie had to get on a plane.


This week I’ve mainly been being ill. I’ve either been asleep or at the Mahad, but i’m getting better just in time for the Mahad to announce its extending the Eid el Fitah holiday from 3 days and a weekend to 5 days and 2 weekends just as we left for the first of those weekends. Sahar, a friend from back in the day who I haven’t seen for years, and I had amazing Jordan based plans for the holiday but eventually realised they were for the wrong dates and neither of us can make them. Oops, though it does mean I can catch up with my Arabic in time for the exams. after a week of good times and a week of illness it needs it. really though I’m going to Lebanon, hopefully getting some caving in this time, though I’ve been too ill to really sort anything out.