A little bit of Arabic (& a lot of p0lit1cs)

Arabic is built on a three letter constantal root system. The three root letters have a concept attached to them, and you add other letters to it to get the exact meaning you want. kataba, he wrote, kitab, book, maktab, office or desk. It goes on. Its not always that easy, but it is usually interesting. The same root gives us the words for friend and truth, for example, and ash tray and intifada share a root. Sometimes its confusing, it means the are lots of words that sound very simmiler to other words. Thes a formula for buliding meanings. To create a noun of place, for example, you stick Ma at the front of the root, and it becomes the place where the root happens. darasa – he studied, madrassa-school.

The Arab world has councils, which are theoretically where democracy happens. The word is majls. At its most basic jls means sitting. I think the names pretty apt.

My Syrian friends (I do have Syrian friends I haven’t written about, I just don’t like them as much) have started to be excited about regional developments. I’m excited. People are watching whats happening in Egypt, and thes a sense of expectation, at lest among people I know. The man whos currently el-pres in the land of the pharaohs once said ‘the Amaricans don’t understand the Middle East, and never would,’ (it does take a certain amount of p0litical acumen to still be in power at 82) but we agree that their call for peaceful transition is A Good Sign. Fisk wrote that the universal feature of Middle Eastern p0litical life was a belief in ‘The Plot,’ everyone knows the Americans know more than we do.

P0ltics types have been watching that country for some time. Theirs disagreement amongst the elite about who should succeed the current leader anyway, his son, or someone more his own age from his inner circle. Its argued that neither side can win, and neither will want to back down and this disagreement will open a space for a more representational government.

According to the BBC the Syrian leadership is tightening its internet security, but the people I’ve spoken to are doubtful that the’ll be anything here. I asked someone weather this was because they feared a repeat of Hama (google it). I expected the answer I got, no, but not the reasons for it. It was explained to me that the people behind the Hama uprising were terrori sts, who’d b00mbed, or at lest planned to b0mb, Cham. We agreed x was a likely figure for the number of ‘collaterals’ in Hama, and the person I was talking to did say that they thought that the g0νenmental response had been ‘bad.’ I feel they meant that the regime had gone a couple of thousand over the limit, rather than anything we would use to describe it*. We also agreed Basheir isn’t the man his father was, the world has changed a lot over the last 25 years.

That said people know the consequences of getting caught are not pretty. If anything did kick off in Syria people I know are certain that at lest some of those caught would die in ja il, not all of them after having served a life sentence. Implicit in the above is a lack of belief in the possibility for change.

The people I’ve talked to, including one that thinks its more than probable that Americas public enemy number 1 is in the pay of the freemasons, bemoan the lack of p0 litical awareness. They think that people are happy to have an anti-american, anti-is real g0νernment and don’t know what their p0liti cal masters are up to. Certainly it doesn’t feel like the country’s poised on the brink of a reν0luti0n.

If it was a choice I have no doubt that meany people here, the kinds who become p0liti cal agitat0rs in South America or Eastern Europe would take more social freedom over greater p0liti cal libaty. My family would have liked it if the powers that be were less inificent. The current leader assumed power in 2000, people don’t seem to think a new one would be hugely more effective, or would curb ‘vitamin wows’ ability to cut through red tape. The word we would use would for vitamin wows (a letter in the Arabic alphabet) ecstasy like stimulation of Syrian beaucracy would be ‘bribary.’

Everyone expected the Jordanians to be brought off with cheap bread, and it seems like they have been. Syrians I know thought this not so much because Jordanian bread riots are practically an annual event, but because they suspect the Jordanian g0vernment is ‘better’, to use the word they used.

What did suprise me was the reaction to events in Lebanon. While it’s agreed that its their country and they can do what they like, I think people feel the Lebanese are making a mistake. They’ve formed a g0vernm3nt, with the pro-Syria element domenent.

This is the result of talking to a pretty small, and by no means random, sample. English is not well taught at school here, so everyone I’ve spoken to has been affluent enough to supplement it and has had a reason to think this is a good way to spend there money. Useually because they’ve wanted to move to Europe, either to further there professional training or because they find Syria limiting.

 

* I’m picking words pretty carefully here, and Chris uploaded this for me. Maybe, probably, its just Middle Eastern paranoia. Everyone heres certain that the foreigners are monitored and I  know people who’ve tried to rent rooms and been turned down on the ground the landlords don’t want the hassle of talking to the authoratys. We’ve all got file numbers written in our passports, every now and then someones deported. While I’m not sure how well organized the foreigner watching unit is (a friends friends visa application was turned down, so she flew to Lebanon and got one at the border), its not my safety I’m taking chances with.

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Boobies and Busses (or look, one entirely booze free story)

The other day the was a ‘traditional’ couple and their new baby on the bus. Hard to asses the slender womans age under her cheap black outfit, but going by her hands, the only part of her you could really see, she was 15 to 20 years younger than the man in the polyester trousers and ugly shoes she was sat next to. It had to be their first child-they had its body weight in toys and stuff for it and they looked quite confused. Nothing unusual about any of this, but then the baby woke up and its mother whipped out her breast, gave it to the baby and rearranged her headscarf to cover most of her chest. the baby didn’t appear to be hungry, it certainly wasn’t interested in suckling. The womans modesty would have been pretty much preserved had the child played ball, but it didn’t. The mother seemed unconcerned about flashing her tit to the bus as she attempted to persuade her kid to eat, eventually gave up and gave the baby her bus ticket which it perversely and happily munched on as its mother put her breast away again.

 

The week before last I went to Jermanna to see Ullin. The service was slowed by crowds of men who formed half circles round the windows of any shop with a TV in it and spilled off the pavements, blocking the roads as they strained to watch the football. Syria are already out of the Asia cup, so I thought this was strange. As a lone female I was out of place in a bad way so I continued to Ullins without investigating and forgot about it. Only when I left did it start to make sense. The center of Jermmana had become a party. men were driving up and down, holding the horn down. young women in hijab hanging out of the cars, bum on the window, holding on with one hand and waving the Iraqi flag with the other. Women had appeared from somewhere waving Iraqi flags. One, who looked about 50, was crying with happiness. At that point the police terned up to end the party so I hopped on a Bab Tuma serviece.

Jermanna was once a Druez village. When Rami was growing up a lot of it was farmland,  when his mother was young she wouldn’t walk where Pauls preferred convenience store is as the were so many trees she was afraid of getting lost. But Syria was the only country in the world which didn’t impose visa restrictions on Iraqis during Gulf War II. Refugees can access primary education and some health care on the same basis as Syrians and illegal buildings have replaced the orchards of Ramis childhood. The Druez are considered heretics, and Syrian Muslims wont live in Jermanna if they can help it. It was, therefore, cheap, and easy as new buildings went up, for Iraqis to move in. Iraqi Christians are particularly attracted to Jermanna as its a non Muslim area, and now they (probably, no one has a proper idea of Syrias population) make up the second largest ethnic group there. Syrias unemployment rates high enough as it is, and it dosn’t issue work permits for Iraqis. Jeramannas now at the center of Damascus’ prostitution scen, though people agree this isn’t as bad as it was*. It was Jeramannas refugees that had been watching their team and celebrating their victory. The Druez are secretive about their religion (What Rami says about it and what the books say are totally different). Traditionally they live in the mountains or pretend to be Muslims if living in majority Muslim areas. While some have made pretty ruthless slum landlords, they aren’t happy about sharing their neighborhood, and the countryside has been lost for ever.

 

*I asked Paul, theoreticaly, how he’d pick up an Iraqi prostitute. After some deep thought he told me he’d ask Rami to arange it. I asked Rami, who pretty shocked and told me he’d never done anything like that. In my quest for knowlage I asked Deanny, who told me they were girls in Hijab with lots of make up. thats about half the female population. Ullin told me the were resturants with no windows, but that really you knew because of the way they look at you.

 

 

Oud, emotion and idiocy

Ramis attempting to get his girl, and arranged a concert for her. He invited along an oud player, who cant be less than 50 (everybody loves Rami, its his magic), and another friend of his who sings, and the rest of us to make it less obvious. They played Kurdish songs full of longing for a homeland and Arab classics. The low light caught the cello curves of Ramis face, alight with delight and the girls eyes sparkled. Rami and Ullin joined in the singing during the Arabic songs, Ullin, who’s welsh, pleased with himself. My latest housemate, Maria, is beautiful in an uncomplicated kind of a way and a fairly serious violinist. She laughed with joy and the singer wrote down songs for her during the instrumentals. Sophia recorded all the music, a duet for oud and voice. lighters flared, illuminating people like details in a Caravaggio painting, as they lit ciggerets.

When the musicians decided they’d had enough we put music on. It slowly got less Arab and more dancey. eventually I put on Part Two of the 2 Many Djs Radio Soulwax mix. Syria went crazy and did Dabka to ‘pounding, pounding techno music,’ Ullin and I somehow keeping on doing it for longer than any of the others. the men (including the oud player) took off their jumpers, shirts and big teeshirts  and danced in their under teeshirts. Sophia went crazy. The girl who is definitely not Ramis had a fantastic time, a bit too good. she was dirty dancing with all the men. After a while Rami decided he couldn’t watch her grind everyone but him and sat in his unlit studio  brooding. I took him out cigarettes every now and then. He didn’t want to talk.

Eventually the party decided it was finished, qued up with its USBs, copied the music and left, all apart from the girl, who was pretty drunk. As the Alpha female in the group and the laziest about going home I get Pauls bed after parties and Rami and I sat their, finishing the Arak I’d saved, listening to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. I love Rami enough to have not even thought ‘I told you so,’ until today, so instead of pointing that out I copied ‘Alice’ for him as we waited for the girl to accept that ‘when the partys over, the partys over.’ When she did I fed her bread and Rami, very tenderly, gathered all her stuff together, put her coat and shoes on and found her a taxi as he went back to his parents. She was getting to the emotional stage and telling Rami hes a gentlemen. I hope he got her into a taxi before she started crying.

Politically the Middle East is an exciting place right now, I’m in ‘Zen Internet’ a lot, seeing if anythings happened. Ullin is the only one of my friends to have said anything about it, he predicts a drop in the number of language students going to Lebanon to renew their visas. He then told me a really funny story about a girl he knew.

Shes into love and peace, while not being that fussed about thinking. To show how she ‘doesn’t hate anyone,’ she always carried Shekels, the currency of the Zionist Entity, in her wallet. Officially as far as Syria and chunks of Lebanon are concerned the Zionist Entity is a kind of malignant tooth fairly that A) doesn’t really exist and B) is the source of all evil. (Martin does an amazing impression, in Arabic, of Assad the elder explaining this. He’s in Lattakia with the Alawat but he’ll have opinions about regional developments). You’re not allowed into either country if you’ve visited Occupied Palestine and  its just not that smart to take Shekels on a picnic, off the beaten track, deep in the Hezbollah controlled Bekka valley. ‘To be fair to her’ she didn’t know that Hezbollah were out on the guerrilla warfare version of marnovers, but they were. They were pretty surprised to see a couple of foreigners with sandwiches and questioned them thinking they might be Israeli operatives. Needless to say the Shekels didn’t endear her to them and they didn’t believe her explanation, but after keeping them for 3 days in a Hezbollah jail they decided she was too stupid to be Mossad and dumped them at the Syrian boarder.

Arabic and art

Now I’m not at the Mahad any more I can study in bed until about 10am when the sun hits the veranda and Sophia or I go to the bakery on the corner and fight half Bab Tumas old ladies, then run home clutching warm bread which we eat with lebbna, hoummas and parsley. I have a side order of tea, Sophia takes matė (really this is South American, but lots of Druze have worked their, and they brought matė back with them. Its overcome sectarian differences, and now all Syria loves it. Rami prepared me some once, with elaborate ritual. Rami, I said. This is disgusting).

Theoretically I earn lessons from Rami by modeling for him, but he taught me a rediculious amount of Arabic before my exams so now I owe him about a month and a half of sessions. Now its my tern to give:

I’m really enjoying the modeling. We listen to music, taking it in terns to choose the album, When I get too stiff or too cold to sit still any more we have coffee and that matė and talk about Ramis problems (which, other than financial, haven’t made it on hear), particually his

girl problems. He really likes a woman that is neither obtainable nor halal. One thing that is becoming obvious in my counciling sesions is that formal english isn’t a particually good language for talking about this kind of stuff. Arabic isn’t going to be any better; it has only word for ‘I quite like coffee’ and ‘I love my boyfriend more than anything else in the whole world, ever.’ consiquently Rami has added such concepts as ‘get over’ ‘move on’ ‘man up’ and ‘I’m hear for you,’ to his vocabulary. The boys both seem to think that I’m some kind of wise older sister. perhaps they  should tell to James.

I also have a specific Fosha teacher, Hossam, who I pay for. Ullin’s one of his graduates. I’ve read my first piece of Arabic literature for Hossam. It took all day to translate the 16 sentences in it, and I’m a bit confused about some of the finer detail, but its basically about a crow that goes to school but doesn’t work, only sings. Then it fails its exams and ‘is sad and doesn’t sing no more.’ Is Hossam insinuating something? I told Ullin about it, but he interrupted me in gales of laughter. Apparently it was his first story to.

I think Hossam would like to be the trainer of Jedi nights or something, breaking down the ego and preconceptions about how things are suposed to work, to buld up the traini Jedi again, in a new, force understanding, way. I spend my whole life lerning vocab, translating Arabic and writing sentenses useing spechial grammer pattens, then going round for Hosam to abuse me. I’m waiting for him to turn to me and say ‘now my son, you can start lerning arabic,’ and give me a copy of the Hans Ver root dictionary or something.

Halab, land of milk

Rami, Sophia and I took the train to Halab, Aleppo in English, because Sophia likes the romance and Rami hadn’t ever been on one. Although ‘No’ plays a pretty small role in Ramis vocabulary I think he’d of vetoed it if he had any idea how shit the train to Helab is. Still, I got lots of help with my Arabic on route.

We had a good time, but you can get a description of the citedell out the guidebook; I think relating the bad side of our trip is more interesting, besides showing a thoroughly shit and unexpected side to Syria.

At the hostel Sophia found it hard to believe that the man couldn’t speak English, I see her point, but Rami and I both believe his English genuinely wasn’t functional. She also had a hard time believing they wouldn’t give her the price quoted in her guide book. I was tiered, hungry and annoyed, Rami translated, hard work. I reckoned he was putting a lot into the negotiations. the was lots of eye contact and ‘habibies, in the protracted conversation, but I didn’t feel they were having a friendly chat. The management asked Rami if he was Muslim, and instead of admitting hes Druze he said he was a Christian. Sophias staying longer in Aleppo than me and Rami so she wanted to keep the room at a third of the price and just didn’t understand it doesn’t, and wasn’t going to, work like that. Eventually the hotel man asked Rami where he’d lernt his Arabic, it was really good Ameya for a foreigner. Rami looked bemused and said he was Syrian.

Game over.

Rami translated, looking slightly to the left of Sophia as he said

‘Because, I’m a Syrian man,’ then laughed a little, brave, but unsure laugh. ‘I’m not aloud to stay with you unless we’re married.’ Apparently its the law. I said the law was unjust. Sophia wanted the rational behind it explained. I looked at Rami, Rami looked into the middle distance and said something along the lines of ‘I hate all this traditions.’ Sophia wouldn’t let it drop, but the hotel man, who was now eying Sophia and me appreciatively, cut her out and talked to Rami, who wasn’t engaging with Sophias questioning. He recommended a hotel around the corner that might let us stay together, but did say they could bend the rules and let Rami have a privet room, though obviously this would be more expensive than shareing. As we entered the recommended ‘hotel’ a bevy of practically naked young women poured out. Sophia vetoed it on the spot, I don’t think she understood that it was because it was a brothel that Rami might be allowed to sleep with us. We tried a whole lot more hotels but they either wouldn’t let Rami stay at all or were more expensive than the first hotel, where we ended up, inevitably I thought.

It was now closer to midnight than 11. We unanimously agreed to get something to eat and pick up some  wine to drink in the hotel. I’d payed for the food, Rami had payed for the taxi and the two of us had split the cost of the wine. Sophia had been smoking Ramis fags all day, which pisses me off. Hes not some French guy that can afforded to subsidize girls, and in Syria you are less of a man if you are nkheel, stingy. Its not fun being the poorest anywhere, but you loose face by not paying hear. Rami will never say no if hes asked something, so you need to be careful what you ask. Breath, I thought. Paul pointed some of this out to me.

Rami went to do something and Sophia asked me what my problem was. My problem was that while none of us had had a particularly great evening Rami wasn’t going to get on a plane and leave it all behind. I thought Sophia was making it harder, rather than eisyer, for Rami to deal with it. Needless to point out she didn’t see it like that, but at that point Rami returned, cutting the argument short. He warned Sophia to be careful about the hotel man, who’d apparently been asking questions about us. Sophia wanted to know what Rami meant. I knew exactly what he meant. Rami didn’t want to give Sophia a straight answer and she chased for one.

‘Basicly he thinks we’re a pair of sluts.’ I interrupted. Sophia started saying something pretty aggressive to me.

Rami looked at me, I shut my eyes and said, slowly and diplomatically.

‘We’ve done something quite unusual by turning up with a Syrian man, and the hotel man, thinks we might do other, unusual things. While the are lots of great things about Syria’

‘For you, yeah, cus your foreign, but the are more bad things than good.’

‘the are bad things to, and sometimes, the bad stuff taints the relationship between the three of us. you know this word ‘taint’?’

‘in this context maybe.’

‘Shoo yarny taint?’

‘Basically, we are too cool for Aleppo, the problem isn’t any of us, its shit, its really shit, but we win by not getting bothered by it. lets. just. chill.’

So we did. we relaxed and genuinely enjoyed ourselves, finding peace with each other although Rami had a slight edge all night. I dropped something and said ‘motherfucker,’ because I was thinking about Paul. This word is as an essential a Paul accessory as a glass of Arak and a packet of Gillouse. Rami, who has herd Paul say it a million times, asked me exactly what I meant. Was I accusing him of being a motherfucker?

He fixed Sophias lighter and didn’t see being a nation of excellent bush mechanics as a plus for Syria. He just wanted stuff to work.

‘Ahh but Rami, when the oil runs out, when nothing works anymore, Europeans will die,’ I said

‘So will the Saudis,’ he replied with a savage laugh. While observant Muslims love them, the rest of Syria hates the Saudis. We beat them in the Asia cup the other day, ecstatic just about sums it up*.

The next day we went to the citeadel, which we all really enjoyed.I do see that Ramis pretty pale and Sophia pretty dark

‘The book says its 150 each,’ Sophia said heading to the ticket office. Rami and I stood, looking at the sign.

‘Not for me. 15 lira. I’m a Syrian man,’ Rami laughed.
If your reading this you can’t have failed to notice that this entry has photos, all courtesy of Ramy. We’ve wipped out our USBs, an essential bit of Syria servival kit, and had a bit of a copy left session. I’ve  put some of Sophias photos into some old entry’s, mainly the Maoula one.

* Syria won theire opening game against KSA, who’ve played in every single final of the Asia cup. Then Japan were awarded a crucial and underseved penelty and beet Syria. We were one nill up against Jordan when a clumsy header ended in an own goal, in a game we lost 2-1. Syrias just a bit English about these things.

3 AM Stories

A social life, or at lest a ‘going out life’ in a country where 85% of the population at lest theoretically don’t drink is ‘interesting.’ There are a lot of language students hear, certainly enough to create a viable market for Western nightlife, and its by no means a purely Western experience. For my birthday I smoked nargellia with some friends rather than having a few beers as Shahien and Roshanna don’t drink. Cheers for all the messages, by the way. I appreciate it. The night I stayed up till 6am at Pauls talking politics, me drinking beer, Paul on the Arak is pretty representative of my social life. I remember the way Paul looked through his halo of cigarette smoke and how the light turned his ice cubes into moonstones, then waking up and hour and a half later with Paul stood by his bed looking at me with the intensity of a cat. He’d pushed me out his bed before I’d even killed my alarm so that he could get into it and i could go to the mahad. Elhamduila for the coffee man, man. Rami likes to dance if Ska or something is playing. Ramis too cool to care that its early afternoon, that no one is drinking and its just him dancing. But the are clubs hear, where East meets West in mutual bafflement. both sides are strangely changed by the interaction, which isn’t to say it can’t be fun. enjoy a bunch of random storys that highlight  different aspects of going out hear.

Why on earth does Syria not understand the concept of vodka and coke? Baccadi and coke, yes, vodka and orange, yes again. But vodka and coke, no. Also Syria dosn’t seem to get the whole ‘customer is always right’ thing. Barmen just cannot believe I really want vodka and coke, they think my Arabic is defective. I have to get someone to negotiate for me. Once (but definitely never again) it was Rami.

‘Rami, fucking get him to put some coke in it.’        ‘What!’                                                                                                                                                    ‘Coke. In my vodka.’                                                                                                                           ‘O, that is fucking disgusting.’                                                                                                   ‘Don’t give me any of this Rami. In the UK, we put Coke a Cola in our vodka. And I am from the UK.’                                                                                                                                               Rami and the barman have a short argument.                                                                            ‘He says he’ll put some orange in it.’                                                                                                ‘I don’t want fucking orange in it, I want Coke. I’m fucking tiered, I need suger and caffine and I’m the one going to drink it’                                                                                               Rami and the Barman negotiate, I recognize the Arabic for foreign several times. The barman looks extremely dubious, but produces a can of Pepsi. I’m not going to argue the difference. He and Rami,who looks equally unconvinced, look at me, I poor the Pepsi into my glass, the barman reaches to grab it so I can’t pollute my cheep nasty Syrian vodka further.                                                                                                                                             ‘god keep your hand’ I say. Rami laughs, he always does when I use Arabic that some one else taught me.

***

Serali’s the club thats strictest about not letting men in with out a female chaperon to ensure good behavior. I’ve never been but word on the street is that men just take along prostitutes to get round the problem. I am gleefully assured that its pretty obvious which of the women are literally escorts. The men are then forced to pretend harder to be in committed relationships, and spend allot of time accusing other men of pulling the moves on their ‘girlfriend.’ Danny refers to it as ‘Serali. Are you looking at my girlfriend? Are you looking at my girlfriend?’ Danny loves talking about it, partly because he gets the chance to use his 5 new Arabic words for ‘fight’. I’m not entirely sure what he gets so excited about though as ‘khnaaga chammeia’, a Damaceane fight, kinda means mouthing off with lots of noise and no violence. If I was a journalist I’d make an effort to substantiate the roumers, but as I’m a language student I feel entitled to save my cash, repeat hearsay and not waste a Thursday night.

***

A story thats defenetly not from three AM- How I found myself doing Dabka, a kind of Arab group tap dancing, basically the Lavents take on morris dancing, to Gloria Gaynors ‘I will Survive!’ Rami took Sophia and me to a girl on his courses birthday party. Im not entirely sure what the deal was; it was in a club, it cost 600 to get in (including two ‘free’ drinks) it was only the girl and her friends their, and the was music from 6pm to 10.30pm. I think part of the reason Rami wanted to take us was because we would take bags and he could secreate booze in those bags. We were the only people doing this, but then Ramis Druze. While I think we did give Ramis social standing a bit of a boost (I know that bringing a couple of foreign girls along to a caving social would precipitate some good natured teasing in Aber. Rami wont engage with any questions about what will happen hear) we were definitely under dressed. being Europeans we work a slightly more ‘sweetly disheveled’ low maintenance look than Syrian girls, who are perfectly made up at all times, anyway. And we were in our street cloths. no satin, no ruffles, no high heals, no trips to the hairdresser for us. And no flesh either, its cold at night.

You know how when we go out we dance in a little group? Syria dances in pairs, unless its doing Dabka, so our little three looked slightly out of place on the dance floor. Sophia danced with some other guy for a bit, but Rami asked me if I could bring her back as he really hates that man so I cut her out like a quarter horse selecting a heifer and turned her round to dance with Rami.