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.’