Syrian Superstars

P and I are both professional speakers of English. Neither of us can understand why you’d want to be a film star, which is what our major marketable skill last saw us doing. That said I don’t think I’ll ever look at a crowd scene in the same way again, it was an interesting experience.

In the Arab world major, big budget series are screened every night during Ramadan. In terms of TV news they’re kinda the eastern equivalent of a BBC Austen adaptation. This one stars an English woman, who is on a scientific expedition to Ottoman You Know Where when a Ghost, played by the guy who was Saladin in The Kingdom of Heaven, convinces the silly bint to run off into the desert. OK, the story might not be Austen standard, but the rest of it is. We went of to Aleppo, where an award wining, almost entirely male make up crew spent two hours turning me into Mary, a rather naive member of the exped. Homosexuality is illegal in Syria. We were filming in a posh restaurant, and eventually plates of mezze appeared, and then, much to my surprise a main course followed. This was, without a doubt, the highlight of the experience, but I also approved of the four star hotel we were whisked off to after midnight but before being filmed at all.

I’m clearly not cut out for film making, as I don’t like being told what to do and I hate being dicked around, which there was a lot of. Being told at 1am to be in makeup at 6am, for example, doesn’t make me happy. Neither does being given my lines 5 minutes before I’m supposed to speak them (in English). It was ok though, each scene was filmed several times, and sometimes just cut down to one line, as both close ups and long range shots. One scene, in the souk, took over 20 takes, even though nothing was said. The director had got hold of some camels to hide modernity behind, they are certainly big enough. Someone had a monkey and there were a nice lot of headscarved women. Edward Saied would not have approved.

One of my favourite scenes was the one where we arrived at the hotel. For aesthetic reasons my character carried her own suitcase and hat box, something I doubt any well brought up pre WWI woman would have done, even if she was on a scientific expedition in the Ottoman Empire. Syria being Syria though, as soon as ‘cut’ was called men would insist on carrying them back outside ready for the next take, rather than let me do it myself.

There was a lot of hanging around, all of looking like we’d been through some defective time machine that gave Bedouin daggers but left there laptops and produced Victorian women with jeans beneath their dresses and iPods in their ears. P spent along time talking about how we could study alot, but actually spent most of his time playing chess, which made me giggle over my dictionary.

In terms of practising my Arabic the actors were too interested in themselves to talk to me, the camera and light people too busy, the makeup crew too gay and the extras too convinced P was ether my husband or, hilarious, my father. The restaurant guys, however, thought I was the bee’s knees which was useful when we discovered we were expected to be on set for 16 hours without lunch. People also spoke to me fast, translated things I understood and talked to me in French (basically there is Arabic and there is foreign. When my Arabic breaks down and we need a translator the person I’m talking to will shout ‘anybody speak foreignish,’ until a translators found). It’s hard to know which of these is most annoying. I think the fact that the Arabic for makeup is makeearj, however, is scored into my sole.

Politics is continuing; the British embassy is worried about how national’s pets can be brought into the UK. While I could write you a well reasoned, interesting article about it I’m frankly more excited about having my little crew of friends out to visit. Oh Yeah!

The Dutch, they do more than raw fish!

On Friday, some of us got together, drunk Araq, and listened to a friend play the oud. Good times. However, rather bad times had happened else where in the country that day, with the ‘big men’ admitting to 19 dead. We all, European, Kurds and Arabs, regarded the governments response as marking a kind of watershed. The Dutch embassy agrees.

Their line is that there is no need to avoid the country, but that expats and tourists should be prepared. Stocking up on water, food and candles might be a good idea. Equally withdrawing lots of money could prove to be smart. We should be aware of the situation and the capacity for cutting communications. Lastly, we should prepare for boredom. We should stock up on puzzles, books and games!


Climb like a cucumber, fall like an aubergine

As I looked through the text book and planned my lesson I got pretty excited. I love my students dearly; I worry about the ones I can’t get to engage with the course and I try to be the kind of language teacher that I wish I had. The book we’re working through had a reading exercise about proverbs. We could read it, and then discuss Arabic proverbs. My students would be using the new words to talk about their experiences, helping them to ‘own’ the new vocabulary and using old volcab about something new, stretching them. It would be easy to have a group discussion and we’d be able to do some good things with tenses! Plus I’d learn a bit about Syrian culture. Maybe one of them would explain the title of this post, which C and I found in the guidebook and have giggled about ever since. Oh yeah, as my predecessor taught my students to say.


The best laid plans of mice and English teachers…


We did the reading, explained the new words and then I asked them if they could tell us any Syrian proverbs. Blank stares all round, apart from Q, my favourite advanced student, who said this was a difficult thing to do. I asked them if they knew the saying ‘Climb like a cucumber…’ taking the opportunity to point out that students at the British Council bring their teachers (who earn almost 4 times as much as me) food. I don’t think my students will ever take the hint. Blank stares all-round, apart from Q, who said he thought it was an amazing proverb and asked me to write it on the board.


‘How about ”he who takes a donkey up the minaret must take it down again”,’ I asked, quickly drawing a minaret on the board. Q started laughing; he thought this was the best thing he’d ever heard. M, who I find rather harder to love, looked at me sorrowfully.’ Not a donkey, a girl donkey. A young one.` I dunno if it’s socially acceptable to leave elderly male donkeys up minarets, I didn’t want to confuse them. Instead I asked them when they used this saying, but the answer was drowned by Q.


‘Teach us more proverbs!’


‘It’s your culture (point, reinforce those pronouns), not mine. What about “we started trading,” buying and selling (complete with mime), “shrouds,” for wrapping (more mime) dead people in, “but people stopped” (they know this word, but I flail inelegantly anyway, teaching is my major source of exercise) dying!


‘Shroud, like Muqtada Sada wore,’ someone asked, referring to the Iraqi Shia leader. My students must have an age range of twenty years, but they all belong to the Al Jazeera generation ‘Yeah.’ Q always gets it, has a perfect student.


‘We use this about unlucky people,’ someone said. I thought about teaching them the English saying ‘’no shit Sherlock,’’ but I’m a nice teacher.


‘Can you think of any other proverbs?’


‘Umm, “When it was time for the sad girl to have fun, there was no more fun,’’ M supplied.


‘No,’ said Q, ‘this is not as good.’


I’m enjoying my new ‘hood. I’m much more of a novelty here, and there is much less English. I’ve found some people to watch Al Jazeera and chat in Arabic with. As always the guy who also speaks English is the one who understands me best. I know that in Arabic its Verb, Subject, Object, I know the conjugations for past and present and for the 13 different pronouns. I know the verbal noun is not the verb said really fast, though I don’t know nearly enough of them. Its just in practice that I insert Arabic words into an English grammatical frame work I put up with a baker who insists on confirming in English what I just said in Arabic, because he make delicious Iraqi bread. From the windows of my flat I can see the mountains, still snow capped, that delineate the border with Lebanon by day and the lights of the Old City and Mohajereen by night. From my balcony I can see a rubbish and rubble strewn square with a pylon. My first thought was, I admit, that Arabs don’t do scenic in the way Westerners do, but I’ve since decided that stupidity is universal and that building regulations are actually a really great idea. I console myself by watching the street sellers, a lot of whom have horse drawn carts, and trying to work out what they’re saying.


Politics are continuing. Word on the street is that Al Jazeera is being harassed. Apparently they’re only being allowed to film when they’re with the official reporters. On a more positive note everyone was given 60 minutes of free phone credit on Thursday (there are two mobile companies hear, and one of them is owned by the cousin of the president. Its offices were set on fire in Dera). This in a country where people never have units, and if they do will miss-call you in an attempt to make you pay.  Everyone called home, the networks crashed, and no one could communicate about the next days protests. Then after the danger hours were over the minutes were taken away from us again, and we were told that we could have ten each month, for six months. People will say that taking them back, that tightness at the cost of public goodwill, that lack of foresight is typically Chammie. I think it’s typically authoritarian. We can’t be trusted to make the right decisions about using our units, but that’s OK, Abu Hafez is here to make sure we make the right choices.


One of my students told me of their worries of sectarian strife (I love giving my students words in English, then stealing the Arabic off them). Another is worried about terrorists. A third works in a village (it was explained to me that if you have less than 500 people you’re not a village, you’re a farm) outside of Cham where the police station was burnt down. They say it’s much less exciting than it sounds. My students are all definitely less scared than they were before, but the guy who organized the thing at the mosque I mentioned in my last post is MIA, and the whole time I’m writing I’m worrying about identifying my students, my institute and the area I work in. And as I cant say anymore without doing just that I’ll go home to bed.


What the patient says.

For me life continues. However I watched some men go into a shack next to my block of flats, pull out the collection of rugs and blankets that the family living there have instead of furniture, and destroy the building. The traditionally dressed, unkempt women held their children and argued with the demolition squad, their men folk looked helpless. It’s a big bad world hear in the Global South. These people had darker skin than the average Syrian and heaver facial features; I recon they were from Iraq. My neighbours and I went out onto our balconies, watched, then got on with our life.


My students rather liked Bashar’s speech, mainly because they felt he’d fucked it up. One of them said five of his friends had stopped supporting the regime as a result of it. I’m interested by their perception of media here, Al Arabya is owned by a scion of the house of Saud and my students don’t trust it. Opinion about Al Jazeera is divided. Apparently their offices here have a big picture of Bashar on them, and some see this as signs that they’re not neutral. Others recon that Al Jazeera is exaggerating to boost the ratings. Today the whole web is working fine, apart from Al Jazeera English. Coincidence? When stuff first started happening hear my students would talk about it to me, but not to each other. Their families are from the same part of Syria, they all know each other outside of the classroom and they were all scared of each other. Now though they’ll happily chat about how they didn’t go out to demonstrate their support.


While my students are less scared than they were, the foreigners are worried. A journalist I know was lightly beaten up and had his camera stolen, but he was being stupid, going right up to people and taking photos. More worrying are the tales of visa problems. I met some one who comes from a country that can buy visas at the airport, but who went to the wrong queue and was only saved from deportation by his embassy’s intervention. There were protests planned at a mosque in Sham which we wandered past several hours after midday prayers. It was ringed by men with sticks. We wandered away again. Fast. It was a world away from post-party brunches with P, picking his brains for English, rather than Ameya, grammar and teaching, rather than learning, tips. The cat at my old house had her kittens a day and a half ago. They’re adorable, but strangely juxtaposed with the situation.