Christamas

Christmas is Syria has certainly been an interesting experience. One of my favorite bits was when I had the opportunity to have my photo taken with Santa on his sleigh. instead of playing ‘silent night’ the speakers were blaring the music from that car advert a few year ago where the vircles transform and skate on a frozen lake. maybe Syria associates ice with Christmas. Maybe it just likes the tune.

Bab Tumas been xmas excited for ages now. the shops have been attempting to sell cheep, badly made, derivative Christmas decorations. Lots of the shops and cafes have Christmas trees and fake snow, which was really odd when Syria was a balmy 15 degrees. I think for westernized Syrians celebrating Christmas is a way of showing how sophisticated they are. Jesus is a major Muslim prophet, but Mezzah, the affluent suburb that the Mahad calls home has as many Christmas trees and snowmen as the Christian quarter.

I mainly spent Christmas eve learning Arabic. I had a privet lesson with my new teacher, who I don’t like who but has some seriously skilled alumni, then went to see R. I took a couple of beers round, and tried to explain the 46 Thorncliffe RD xmas experience to an incredulous but amused R. The Druze don’t really do religious festivals. We did get down to business eventually, but some how were still chilling, listening to good music that happened to be in Arabic, at 3am. Suffice to say I’d missed midnight mass at Mar Mousa.

At only 8.20AM I removed myself from The Fixers bed (hes gone home for Xmas) and started missioning it over to Mar Mousa, a monastery in the desert. While Monks moved into the surrounding caves in the 6th century they didn’t get round to building the church for another 5 hundred years or so. It was abandoned, but its ruins were rediscovered in the 80s by a Jesuit traveling with a seriously out of date guidebook. The setting is increadable, overwhelmingly empty desert for miles around. the monastery is at the top of a rocky hill, cut into by a wadi, which is bridged by the monastery at the top. impressed by the peace of the landscape and the 11th to 13th century frescoes he sat there communing with god for three days, then set about rebuilding it. Hes built up a community of monks and nuns, both catholic and orthodox which has raised some local eyebrows, and does lots of work bridging the divide between muslims and christians.

its quite an athletic hike up to the monastery. I got there at half 12, just as the monks were serving breakfast. i was still bewildered by the clean, beautiful peace of it after Damascus when Frenchy found me, got me a cup of tea, sat me down to eat and told me what I’d missed. aparently midnight mass had been in arabic, then theyed all gone outside at 12 and danced round a bonfire. In the morning the had been another service, again in Arabic, then everyone sat in the church in silance foir an hour. We all helped clean up. A German man at Mar Mousa for a year on sabatical must have taken a shine to me and Sophia; he let us feed the hens, which have a little cave to shelter in.

A novice took us to see ‘his’ cave, where he tries to live. He also showed us the ‘cave of the sleepers, ‘ which they try and have as a more muslim friendly prayer space, Then I went into the church. Sorry to sound hippyfied, but it felt really loving as well as calm. It was a bit like a mosque – you had to remove your shoos to enter and the was no furniture, just sheapskin rugs and upholstered back rests. the layout was mosque like as well, with a feeling of open space, despite the church’s small .size and heavy colloms deliniating the nave. the frescos were beautiful. painted over 150 years the latest ones had arabic spript and showed a strong muslium, almost persian, influnce. instead of an alter two beautiful bibles were laied on the floor surounded by candels and stary cloath. the was a man in there sat in a budist meditation pose, and the whole place was decorated for christmas with candels in coulored glass dangling from the celling.

At dinner, a sit on the floor eastern style fest, I met a couple who’d cycled from Scotland. they claimed they’d cheated – they’d taken a ferry from Italy to Turkey. They ate even more than I did. quite a lot of random kids I knew from the Mahad were there, as well as Frenchy, who I’d planned to meet. A couple of muslim family’s had come to celebrate Christs birthday as well, which was nice, but not altogether easy. liking silence and solitude are western phenomena (theres an Arabic saying ‘hell is being without other people’). the predominantly European crowd were annoyed by some of the Muslim children’s toys, which flashed brightly and made noises. while everyone would have happily told another westerner to behave better no one wanted to offend the Muslims, who had no idea that the was a problem. After dinner Father Pablo, who found Mar Mousa, expounded on his ‘clean hearts, clean toilets,’ philosophy. When the revolution comes toilets wont be cleaned by other nationalities for money, but by empowered people doing out of love. I wiped the ‘table’ mats, swept the pantry and vacumed the eating tent with a machine that looked more like a darlik than a hoover. I don’t know who won gods favor by cleaning the lavatory.s

after dinner I went back to the church, dark now apart from three candles hanging from the ceiling. Frenchy lit a candle from the side, and we sat contentedly gazing into the flame. we both felt though that we should go back to Damascus to do the things we needed to do and come back when we didn’t have any commitments in Cham. Father Pablo called us a taxi and we walked down to meet it. The desert was black but the sky was alive with stars.

we alighted from the servieece at Bab Tuma in time to catch the end of a Christmas concert in the new park that snakes along against the city walls. think big hair, poppy tunes and fully dressed up Santa clauses ringing plastic hand bells attempting to sell Christmas hats that flash the message ‘happy Christmas,’ across them in English. I’ve consequently got an Arabic language version of ‘Jingle bells’ lodged in my head. According to Mariki we’d missed a military style parade with children dressed up as Christmas trees.

My exams are now the third and fouth. confusion rages as to weather the second is a holiday. I’m not going to go back for a course there, and very few of my friends are either, but we are going to do ‘mahad Wednesdays’ and study there together, visit the coffee man, take advantage of the free wifi and see everyone.

You’ve gotta toot for mazoot

Rami yelling at my landlord in Arabic was infinity more successful than my asking him to fix the sobia (stove) in English. he came and did it almost at the time he said he would. The only problem is that all the mazoot (diesel) was in peoples sobias. Hisham and Amet are Syrian/Venezuelan and Turkish respectively. Indeed Amets from Antakia, part of Syria until the eve of world war 2 when the French tried to buy Turkish support by giving them a chunk of Syria, and his grandfather doesn’t speak Turkish, only Arabic. My point is neither of them are crippled by the European expectation that things will work and they haven’t ever been lost and bewildered in Syria. They told me to get mazoot I had to listen for ‘a special toot,’ and thought they’d sorted me out. The other foreigners in my house are also Syrian winter virgins. They have no idea how to buy Mazoot either, and are glad its my problem not theirs. I know the toot for vegetables, the toot that means the blindman is selling tissues, and the random yelling that signifies I can win gods favor by giving the beggar money. But not the toot for mazoot. Hisham says that in Lattakia the mazoot toot has been banned, so now the mazoot salesmen play a certain Ferouz song really loudly instead.
‘Its not beautiful,’ he told a doubtful Paul and me, ‘Its more than beautiful. ‘*

However the other day as I walked back from Paul and Ramis I passed something that smelt like it would sell me mazoot, so today i took our mazoot container (which would make any self respecting health and safety inspector cry) and investigated. I found a van with a pair of 14 year olds happily smoking away in it. ‘Ana bidy asteratu masoot,’ I told them. They burst out laughing, probably because I’d said ‘I want to have brought deisal.’ One of em hoped out, pulled down a flap on the van revealing a mini petrol pump, flicked his cigarette ash and asked me how much I wanted. Que very confused conversation, but eventually he filled it up, fag glued to his lower lip the whole time. I payed and attempted to run away fast; the cigarette was dangerously close to being finished and I don’t wanna die like Zoolanders friends. At this point I understood why the mazoot seller was so reluctant to sell me a gallon of the stuff – you try doing some James bond running and diving away from an explosion while lugging half your body weight in mazoot.
Taxi drivers don’t let people slopping mazoot around get in their taxis, but matha mushkala; some random guy carried it home for me. Sophia and I couldn’t get the Sobia to work, neither could Maria. Amet told us it was broken – Hishams the one who can fix things. Hisham got various spare parts and hybridized the thing.
‘Don’t go in to your room for 10 minutes,’ he told me. ‘The Sobia will probably blow up, but that is normal. Afterwards it’ll be more than perfect.’

In good news the Mahads decided Dec 26th is definitely a holiday, that Jan 1st probably is and Jan 2nd maybe to.

*Hisham finds it almost impossible not to say ‘its not x’ then stare soulfully into someones eyes, anyones eyes, and declare, ‘its more than x’. He particularly likes saying stuffs ‘more than perfect.’ Sophia, Paul and I find this hilarious, and are consequently doing it a lot to. Hisham knows their is a joke, but, despite our efforts to explain, not quite what it is, which makes it funnier still. Paul has his share of Irish charm as well, and I’ve been teasing him about being a charming bastard since we first met. Copying me Sophia has taken to telling them both that they’re ‘so charming,’ which infuriates Paul on the grounds you’d have to be blind not to see straight through Hisham. I find Pauls annoyance, the reason for it and his reluctance to explain it to Sophia not hilarious. Its more than hilarious, as is our total inability to accurately define ‘charm’ for Hisham, Amet and Rami.

Maaoula – Mark 2

Today Ullin, whose been in Syria for not quite two years but can already perform great feats of Arabic speaking, like reading books (even if it takes 3 or 4 months to get through one) and has not only mastered newspaper reading but got bored of doing it, told me that keeping an Arabic language diary is a major key to Arabic success. So I’ve started one and its practically impossible to explain how goddam excited I am about it. clearly it’ll help me master the intricacies of the past tense and, by definition, will grow my vocabulary in a way thats relevant to my life. Oh yeah! Should be good for my grammar too, and will theoretically help me think in Arabic, once I’ve got past the ‘I did X. then I did Y. Then I did Z. It was good’ stage.
Diary entry number 1 had some interesting stuff to go in it as Ullin and I went to Maoula, which was looking more like Switzerland than ever, to enjoy the remnants of the snow. I’d had quiet drinks with some people the night before and Martin showed us the photos of snowy Maoula that he’d taken that day. Martin’s Dutch, not a Muslim and has Arabic so good hes stopped studying the language and is studying Sharia law in it instead. He spent the summer in Maoula, which is cooler than Damascus, learning Aramaic. At the risk of pointing out the obvious, hes an interesting guy.

Ullin and I climbed about on the pink hued rocks and scrunched through the blue tinged snow, making our way up the side of one of Maoulas mountains. It was crisply cold and windswept up top as we looked down the precipice towards the village, me happily chattering about caving. the are two different denominations of Christians living in Maoula, and apparently the is an annual festival during which the rival churches fling burning tires down towards the village from opposite sides of the valley. The group that throw down the most tires wins. According to Ullin tires are less likely to hit the houses than you might think. Although the was less snow than in Martins photos we both enjoyed being out the city and getting some proper exercise. coming back down again was pretty physical as we got a bit lost.
Back in Damascus I met up with Rami so he could mark all my Arabic. Rami walked into my room, shivered and pulled his jacket tight, then touched my heater, bringing it down in a cacophony of falling metal. He asked to speak to my landlord and they shouted at each other in Arabic over the phone, Rami looking at me with a mixture of compassion, bewilderment and early onset hypothermia. The landlord agreed to make it better, and Rami agreed Ninar, a wanky cafe-resturant-bar thing round the corner from mine, might be a better place to work. He liked my diary, mainly because I’d managed to say ‘I’m a fridge.’ My aim for this week is to engage with my fusha ‘vocabulary.’ I’ve collated all the verbs and adjectives I’ve been ‘taught,’ Rami and Paul between them have translated/confirmed the English and now I’m going to learn them.

Walking in a winter wonderland – Sunday

Its been far walmer and dryer than it should have been and Syrias running out of water. the plumbing’s fine in the mornings, but not to be taken for granted after midday. when i moved into my house the was enough water to run the washing machine until 2pm. now if your washing isn’t in it by 9am it ain’t getting done. In the old city the waters been randomly switching from drinkable to less drinkable. Jeramana has had days on end with no water at all. the farmers arn’t happy either.

consequently a prayer drive was organized. throughout Damascus last Fridays prayers begged for rain. some of us think the faithful might have over done it slightly; Damascus is under about 4cm of snow.

it was raining stair rods on my way to the Mahad. at the bus stop i saw what looked like snowflakes mixed in with the water. by the time I’d got to the university it was snowing. by the time I got to the Mahad it had settled. After the break we discovered that an inability to function in snow is something Syria and the UK have in common. the director ran up and down the corridor yelling at us to ‘Go home! Don’t drive!'(minor exaggeration-he wasn’t running). So I did.

I thought that after Montreal snow had lost its ability to dissolve me back into a state of wonder. But In Montreal I’d never seen snow covered palm trees. Never seen Ottoman mosques with their domes under snow. As cool as Montreal is its not got Roman civic architecture standing around awaiting a sprinkling. All Damascus has a party atmosphere. I was invited to huddle round a fire and roast chestnuts with some street sellers out of a Middle Eastern Dickens tale. Hajabies, is a word created by combining Hijab (Islamic clothing) and habibi, the Arabic for darling, and used for girls in tight jeans, full makeup and headscarfs, threw snowballs at each other and tangerines peeped out from beneath the snow.

By the time I made it back to the Old City proper it had started raining and the snow was dissolving. never the less I stood on my roof and looked at the snow covered Jebel Qussan and the remnants of snow on the roofs. Then I wandered round Dimasq attempting, and eventually succeeding, in buying a coat. Shopping was enlivened by the frequent electricity cutouts and the cheers as the generators kicked in. the are just too many people using heaters for the city to handle. By the time I was home the rain had turned back into snow.

On the downside the temperature inside my room is exactly the same as it is outside. We’ve all been huddled listening to music in Hishams room in the dark-hes got an electric heater. Did I mention Damascus’ infrastructures shit? We’re going to install Sobahs bukra, inshalla. Sobahs, diasle stoves of great complexity, sound mildly terrafing. We’ve already put the boys in. This involves putting the chimney pipe through a small hole in the ceiling and connecting it to the stove. As the ceiling is about 4 meters high this is a big game and we got ash all over the entire house. As Sophia and I cleaned we danced to the music in our heads to keep warm, creating a percussion symphony with the beat of out feet, drumming against the fridge and shaking keys. we’re having a lot of sub zero fun, though the is a bit of me thats aware that novelty is always a large part of Sub Zero fun. we’re now all going off to Abu Georges, my faverout bar, because it should be warm.

I’m whereing my caving wellys. The only other person in Damascus with dry feet has plastic bags in their shoes. Oh yeah!

POST SCRIPT-Not Really Early Enough, Monday Morning.

As we spilled out of Ninar I watched Rami making a snowball with approval; throwing things, especially cold wet things, at Paul is always to be encouraged. I don’t think I’ve been quite so surprised to be hit by a flying object in my whole life as i was when Ramis snowball connected with my chest. I chucked my bag at Paul, and Rami and I, the youngest of the group, chased each other up Straight Street (mentioned in the bible), scraping snow off the cars and flinging it at each other. Rami managed a direct hit to my face as Paul advanced, having swapped my bag for a lump of snow. it ended up down the back of Ramis neck. eventually a cold, wet, bedraggled Rami called game over and Sophia and I ran all the way down Sharia Bab Toma to get shwama, me jumping in all the puddles and us both KaKaing like Aberystwyth seagulls. We warmed up again back in the house listening to music, me nagging Rami to borrow my socks, Paul supplying us all with beer. As Hisham put it when I asked ‘keif hyat’ (hows life) ‘its not perfect…its more than perfect.’

Rainy day blues-Saterday

It is pissing it down, something my house is remarkably poorly equipped to deal with. The huge hole over the stairs means its raining inside. The puddle in the hallway is slowly but determinedly advancing towards my room, and I know from experience that water can get in under my door. You have to go outside to get to the toilet and kitchen, the drain outside is clogged and consequently there’s  an ankle deep puddle by the kitchen door. I think the water might have got into the electrics as the light have flashed on and off ominously a couple of times. Also I’m doing my washing, it was nearly dry and’s now soaking.

Damascus is sulking under London skys, and I’m sulking with it.

Mauola – Friday.

In some ways Damascus is Hotel California. the is this core of people who just can never leave. On the other hand people are going all the time and I’ve been to more leaving parties than I can shake a stick at.

Some of the language students hear baffle me. they come with no Arabic, stay 5, maybe 6, weeks and spend a month at the university, then leave with better no Arabic. The Fixer tells me to stop trying to figure them out and just accept the ‘Language Tourists,’ don’t actually want to learn Arabic, just feel good about themselves in Syria.

They are extremely well organised sight sears. The Hotel California lot, including me*, are crap. Bukra my friend, bukra. However the Language Tourists are always keen to organize some Hotel Califiorniks onto there trips. The longer you stay the more desirable you become, as the better your Arabic is, though you also become harder to recruit, having seen more of the sights. As the language tourists are keen hammamers and eaters out I intend to know a couple at all times.

Which is kinda how I found myself going to Mauola, rather than learning some new words. My flat mate Frency, who I really like, is in Syria to get spatial distance between her and her broken heart until time kicks in, asked me if I wanted to join her.

Maoulas claim to fame is being one of three places where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken. clinging to the rocky hills, it’s predominantly Christian. The sights are a monastery and a convent. Maybe its the imminent birthday of our lord, but Mauola was pretty happening, with lots people, Christians and Muslims, at the sanctuarys. Somehow it kinda felt like Switzerland, though the skylines dominated by a huge, precariously positioned statue of the virgin Mary and what looks like a copy of the statue of Christ at Rio.

As far as I’m concerned the point of Mauola is the landscape. All limestone, with lots of little, formerly inhabited caves, some with long decrepit ladders up to them. it had a rather cool canyon leading down to the convent. the guidebook describes it as a mini version of Petras siq, but I thought it was more like St Catherines, (a cave we did in Clare) except with less water and no roof, obviously. The whole countryside was pink rock and the houses clung to the sides of the cliffs in an appealing way. Frency and I got excited about the various textures and enjoyed the cool, crisp air. you don’t notice smog until it goes away. It actually felt like autumn, for pretty much the first time.

The monastery is dedicated to Sts Serge and Baccus, and didn’t have a single doorway sized for normal people. it did have a really beautiful domed thing with lovely icons in perfect coulors over an alter adorned with a pair of eco friendly light bulbs. one assumes the monks find them lower maintenance than candles.

I particularly enjoyed the gift shop, not only was it staffed by someone desperate to get us to try the wine (very sweet) but it sold some of the kitschest Santa Clauses and snowmen I’ve seen this side of a coke advert.

The convents gift shop limits itself to reproductions of its icons, but it does have a cave, the home of st Thalika (who abandoned her fiance for St Paul. she was sentenced to death but the lions wouldn’t eat her, so they tried to burn her but it pissed it down. she ran off, moved into a cave in Maloula, was nearly raped but was saved when the rock behind her opened up to create the canyon). its much later than the monastery, and generally not as good.

We made it back to town in time for a beer at Abu Georges before I went off to meet R. basically Maula rocks the socks of Sedanya.

*My excuse is R is closer to free at weekends.

Rooftops

I’m sat on the roof of my house, thinking that in some ways this is a great country in which to be a woman. The rooftops of the old city are the dominion of women and cats, and it’s beautiful. I’m watching the sunset behind church towers, and further away behind minarets. Soon the lights on Jebbel Qussan, Damascus’ mountain, will come on, it will get too cold to sit outside and Paul and Rami will take Sophia and me to some play. A friend of there is in it (we’ve met and exhausted our linguistic overlap) and Sophia, my newest housemate, is here to finish writing her Master’s thesis on theater. Paul is utterly charmed by the way she talks to herself in French while looking for the word in English and its too good an opportunity for him to pass. Now though it is official sunset and although most of the coulor has faded from the sky the muezzins are calling the faithful to prayer. I can look into the neighbor’s courtyards, into some of their rooms, but as I live in the Christian quarter I see no one praying. Next door to has an olive tree, but what is most appealing about sitting on the roof is the higgledy piggledy arrangement of houses. I can’t work out where the roads fit in. as chance would have it while I can see into all the neighbors only two sets of them can see into ours.

My relative invisibility up here, combined both with the way I can see everything, and the way (consequently) none of the boys I live with are allowed up hear makes it an almost secret place, special at least. Its remarkably quite, it almost feels like I’m not in the city anymore.

Damascus has been here since before the dawn of time, and since before the dawn of time the rooftops have belonged to the women and cats.

 

Post script

Even by Syrian time the boys were late. The play had, for some unaccountable reason, started on time so we went to the Russian cultural center, laughed at the ‘art’ on display and played pool instead. Pauls excellent, Rami and I are intermittent and Sophias enthusiastic about this strange game she’d never played before. Paul wimped out at the critical moment, but has pretty much stopped beating himself up about it.

Whos a teror wrist?

This song is rocking my little world at the moment, though the translation on the video is not Oli, Paul and Rami approved. Its by some Palestinians (Paul can’t remember who. we asked Rami when he got home from work but he told us ‘a man,’ preticipating massive giggles. Rami stood aloof from the hysterical foreigners, thought about it and decided the song is by ‘a band,’ which hardly stopped us laughing).

Paul played it to me the other day when I was chilling at his and Ramis flat in Jeramana. I recognized some words, and Paul wrote out the chorus in Arabic. It goes:

‘Whos a terrorist?

I’m a terrorist?

How (am i) a terrorist?

You(‘re) a terrorist. And I live in my own country.

Whos a terrorist?

You(‘re) a terrorist.

You eat me (more kinda ‘you destroy me’). And I live in my own country.

I would of understood it, goddamit, if I had the Ameya words for ‘live’ and ‘who’ (which I guessed), and known the words for ‘eat me’ and (this is kinda the deal breaker) ‘terrorist’. The root letters for ‘eat’ are in the ‘subject patten’ and the song triggered lots of explanations about this (Paul prefaced his explanation with ‘you wont understand this, or remember it yet, but eventually you’ll get it) and various other bits of Arabic.

When Rami came home Paul extracted an Arabic language Ladybird book of ‘Gullivers travels,’ that he’d brought in Dublin, and read us two pages of it, with feeling, while writing down all the words he didn’t understand on a whiteboard. Rami then drew and acted these words, with even more feeling. Not being interested in knowing two different words for barrel I laughed alot and added ‘stupid’ ‘clever’ ‘correct’ and ‘sure,’ words Rami seemed to be using alot, to my vocabulary.

They got into a convoluted, Arabic language discussion about some word.

‘I know this word’ I interrupted

‘makkan tisbah’ Rami said, meaning ‘place of swimming’

‘Swimming Pool.’The boys looked more surprised than anything.

‘Jaied O.’

‘I just don’t understand where the crocodiles come into it,’ and we all started drawing crocodiles that smoked nargillias and drunk beer.

The boys started talking about (it turned out) illicit urbanization. Paul failed to grasp something, causing Rami to draw lots of blocks of flats in a small space, while saying ‘Benaaya wer Benaaya wer benayya…’

I looked at him. ‘Rami wer Paul askon fi benaaya.’- Rami and Paul live in a flat.

‘how can i say well done, I’m proud of you with out it sounding patronising?’ he asked in English.

‘you can’t,’ I said, also in English, grinning back at him.

It all makes me feel happy about my life hear and engaged with Arabic, though I’m barely surviving at the institute. The no English method of teaching doesn’t work for me at all and I never understand whats going on. I was talking to Anne about bothering doing the next level, She thinks she will ‘because otherwise what would we have to complain about?’ On a good day the Mahad is an elaborate practical joke, on a bad day living the dream is more surviving the nightmare.

I need to be taught how to compare things and talk about ‘they,’ ‘hallway’ was not a word I was missing, though I have a bad attitude about the whole thing. I keep on deciding that even if I pass the level I wont go back, that I’ll spend a month in Ciaro doing a teffol course, work for the British Council hear and spend my earnings on privet lessons, then having a good day at the Mahad, and thinking ‘no, Fushas good for you.’ Either that or remembering that thes a spelling test before you can enroll on a tefol course.

I’ve got my exam results back – 53%, 65%, 72% and 76%. the credit goes to Rami and Paul.

Rami, Racism and Me.

I’d heard a lot about Rami from his flatmate, Paul. Paul tends to roll with a pose, and the  night Rami and I met we’d both been recruited for the entourage. Neither of us wanted to pay 1000 SY to go to Mar Mar (Damascus’ premier club) before taking the party back to Rami and Pauls, me because I’ve never paid 13 quid to get into a club and I’m not starting now, Rami because its a tenth of his monthly income. We got a servieece back to the Iraqis and the prostitutes in Jeramana and chilled waiting for the others.

Rami has lived his whole life round the corner from the flat, though he counts as being from Swaida, as its a convinent short hand for being Druze. He still sleeps at home because he can’t afford to buy a bed for the flat, which he uses as his studio. Hes studying art, but this grinds to a halt towards the end of the month when the paper hes brought runs out.

For years Ramis dad worked at a posh restaurant, trying to save enough to open his own. Paul and Rami assure me it did the best food in Jermana, but when the roadworks directly outside it overran into their 8th month it was forced to close. Ramis dad now fails to make ends meet by driving a taxi and the mother has a furniture store. Ramis brother, Nidal, who’s really nice in a geeky kind of way and studies Business Administration, and Rami both work in the restaurant of the Four Seasons hotel. A massive chunk of the boys’ wages go on paying off the family restaurants debts.

Ramis favorite thing to draw is people. Hes wanted to draw a woman for ages but Arab girls are just not prepared to hang out one on one with him. besides he never really had enough space at home, so now hes painting me then teaching me Arabic in return. Hes an amazing teacher. Probably because he was my mate before he was my tutor I never feel thick or anything when I don’t understand, and we giggle over the stuff I don’t get and his difficulty with the letter p. Hes mainly teaching me Ameya, and he gives me words that I use as soon as I leave the flat, but hes tutored me through my exams. He took Fusha grammar that made me want to cry and turned it into something easy. My grammars coming out Ramis mates primary teacher training handbook.

Rami radiates a kind of long haired, loose bodied 70s cool. Not even Rich would criticize his wardrobe and the painting sessions are sound tracked by Dylan or Floyd, who I’m learning not to hate. The exchanges are late anyway, and Paul, whose privet English lessons retail for 1500SY an hour in a country where the average wage is 20000SY a month, often comes home half way through, helps (and the is a reason he can charge so much), and feeds us beer and falafel. I tend to sleepover afterward and generally spend a lot of time at the Jermana flat, which houses perhaps the finest collections of English language fiction and political science in Damascus. We get on well as a three, and its obvious to Paul and me that Rami will come out with us now hes swapped shifts and finishes work at midnight Thursday and has the rest of the weekend off.

But then it becomes painfully apparent that its not obvious to everyone else that Rami should be out with us.

Officially hear the clubs only let men in if they’re accompanied by women, but the rules are always bent. Until the are two more men than the are women, and by the bouncers counting its the Syrians who are spare.

Its pretty distasteful, and it makes me question my relationship with Rami in a way that I don’t like. He smokes local ciggerets that smell appalling at 20SY a packet, rather than ones made hear under license for 50SY, or 68p. Is it patronizing that I always take a packet of real fags over that I try and get him to smoke in a way that doesn’t effect his pride? He knows his are shit, I saw how embarrassed he was when a European girl asked him for one once, and he always smokes Paul’s. Do I make it worse by letting Paul smoke my ciggerets when hes at mine playing chess with Liz and Ahmet  and descusing it?

Last weekend we were at Azzarea and met a girl called Rita. She was fun, and funny and I was disappointed that her eight months were up that week. The night descended into complicated logistics, and she and Rami were to walk alone together for 20 minutes or so to get a servicee back to the Jeramana flat. Rita felt able to spend the whole walk explaining to Rami that all Syrian men are, without exception, bastards. I’d gone home by this point, but Rami says she only stayed with her or she’d be lost and Paul was shocked when the conversation was resumed at the flat. They’re still talking about it and Racist Rita almost a fortnight later.

We’re all annoyed, not only that she felt like that, but she could talk about in front of a Syrian man. But I kind of wonder if its worse that I don’t say things like that around Rami. Is it patronizing again? All I really want is to hang out with my mates, for everyone to be happy and equal and no one to smoke ciggerets that’ll kill flys at 20 paces.

This weekend we were at a party given by some kids at IFPO, whose reputation is matched only be its fees.  Exeter and SOAS send at lest some of there language students on its courses, given, at the higher levels, by university lectures using academic and newspaper articles tailored to the students interests. (if you’re wondering about Christmas presents IFPO do an intense summer school by the way). The British kids tend to ghettoise around there home university’s, IFPO and Damascus University. Paul, whose Irish, was kind of there to add local color. Rami thinks his English is shit and was smoking moodily and intensely like an Arab Marlon Brando and talking to me by the toilets. A girl heard my accent, was I really not at Exeter or SOAS? She was at Durham, doing Arabic and Spanish. She couldn’t wait to go to Nicaragua. South Amarica? I thought they all went to Spain but I see it makes sense.

‘This is my friend, Rami.’

‘Hi,’ the girl briefly smiles him, then goes back to me. Her body language has been locking him out of the conversation since the start. What do I miss about home? She doesn’t like Syria. She says something funny, but rude, about the call to prayer. without missing a beat she turns to Rami.

‘no offense if you are, in any way, shape or form Muslim.’

Rami laughs and makes some reply, but her attentions back on me already. I point out the toilets free.

Rami and I stand in silence. ‘This party’s shit,’ I say.

But I’m thinking about the conversation. Was I seduced in a way by the talk of home? Did I just do the easy thing conversationally and slip into talking about Syria in away that  sounded like I was certain of mine and my cultures superiority compared to Ramis? had I been a bit too disrespectful about Islam first? If I’m happy to laugh about it in a fully European environment why not in front of Rami? am I happy to laugh?

The economics of Ramis life just don’t add up. It seems more tactful not to ask how he feels about it, and he can be quite hard to read, but I’m pretty confidant that he’s not happy about being constantly subsidised by Paul, Liz and me. Despite Paul recently utilising his native English to ern, tax free, in 5 days what Rami earns in 3 months, Rami didn’t want him to spend 200SY, slightly under 3 quid, on paper. Rami could charge foreigners for privet lessons and I can help him find them. But when I mention to people that hes also my tutor I feel like I’m playing with this idea of having an Arab friend, and when I don’t I feel like I’m failing to help out a mate.

The thing I feel worst about is the way Paul and I have a world of possibility’s at our feet and Rami doesn’t. The way we can decide to move quarter of the globe away to learn a language. Ramis English is out of books, off TV and from listening to customers at work. Paul and I can spend an unimaginable amount of money on TEFOL courses, then ern all that money back because an accident of birth means our native language is English. I hate the way Rami saved for months to buy his one glossy art book, on Rembrant, when I take going to the Van Gough museum for granted, when I accept weekends in Amsterdam as, if not an entitlement, at lest the just reward for doing my degree and the send off for my further education.

I just want people to accept that Ramis another guy at a party. That hes a fucking art student, not a predatory male or a trained monkey. All Arabic names have official nicknames, but as all Ramis, and thes no shortage of them, become Abu Reem it doesn’t really solve anything. Liz has pretty much made Ramis unoffical nickname ‘Rami so nice,’ by pointing out how nice he is. I don’t want him being Syrian and poor to be this issue. Why does everyone point out Ramis so nice? Do I allow Rami cus hes nicely sanitized and westernized, with his Gorilaz ticket higher on his wall than his ticket from seeing Feroze*.

I’m rereading ‘A passage to India.’ I took it home for the caves, but thats not whats chimeing  with me.

*I asked Rami didn’t his dad listen to Dylan, and didn’t he find it off putting? he looked at me like I was weird and said, no his dad listened to Feroze.

She was one of the big things in Arab music, but quite old fashioned now, and must be in her late ’60s at lest, but its kinda compulsory to like her and its impossible to escape her rather depressing music. I’ve just read a book about coming of age during the Lebanese civil war where someone attempts to move to Rome not because of the fighting but because they can’t bare the way Feruz turns there life into a ‘morbid hell.’