The sexual politics of public transport.

While hurtling around Damascus in badly driven sardine cans over flowing with humanity I have made some interesting observations about the etiquette of public transport. On the Jermannana – Bab Tuma service that connects perhaps the two most liberal parts of town its fight and fight alike. Women can sit in the front; they can also sit on the floor. On the considerably more conservative Muhajreen-Sana line however chauvinism and chivalry rule. The fight to get on the service is vicious. It usually departs with 15 to 17 people on it, not bad considering they seat, depending on the model, 10-13. A man will always give his seat up to a woman, but it is rude for a woman to force herself on once its rammed, making some man crouch. This is a distinct disadvantage on lines, like Muhajreen-Sana, that fill at the point of departure. Concessions to female fragility don’t come into play until everyone’s on the service; no quarter is given in the fight to board. This puts the elderly, particularly women who are often so fat and inflexible that they need to haul themselves up with one hand on each side of the sliding door, or even roll like an inelegant seal to get onto the raised service, at a distinct disadvantage. I think young to middle aged men give up their seats, not because women can’t sit on the floor, but because the elderly or women wearing proper Hijab are very unlikely to get on it in the first place.


While femininity is respected age isn’t. I am the only young woman I have ever seen give her seat to an old one, and any man who feels he can sit on his seat when I climb on feels that way when a grandmother does.


In many ways I share Syria’s distaste of fat old women in black; I think the Monty Python team must have visited the Arab world before inventing Hells Grannies. I don’t know whether a youth spent worrying about other peoples opinions drove them to it, but they behave appallingly. My Ameyas good enough for me to be constantly shocked by how rude old ladies are to shop keepers. Its generally accepted that a family can lift its children up on the sevicee before the adults get on, and that any one throwing kids on board has a right to a seat. I’ve seen an old woman pick up a kid, put it down off the service and plonk herself in the seat the child was reserving for its now irate mother who was busy putting on its brothers and sisters. Another time an old Bedouin woman hit me until I moved from the seat I had the temerity to occupy before she boarded. I was the only passenger. The Bedouin women are the worst; I genuinely think a lifetime out in the desert sun does something to their brains.


Syrians are pretty scornful of serviecee and taxi drivers. In a lesson about ‘social norms,’ my new students say that to be respectable in Syria one must dress modestly, not drink in public and not drive a serviecee or taxi. Useful advice I’m sure. As a guilty middle class liberal I find their attitude shocking, as an inhabitant of Syria I find it incomprehensible. Drivers are usually employed by the owner, and pay for half the petrol and get half the takings. It’s not their fault the vehicles belch smoke and while they do drive ’em like they stole ’em, so does everyone else.


I feel duty bound in an entry about public transport to relate how the government commandeers public transport on Fridays. The more radical, poorer neighbourhoods are inaccessible on public transport and the government uses the busses and serviecees to transport their supporters around to mount counter demonstrations and beet up protesters, as well as solders. Some say this is to make people think the counterdemonstrators are full on civilians, Fisk relates that the UNFIL forces in Lebanon’s were even more contemptous of the Syrian Army than of the IDF. Isreals might have improved, but I don’t see post cold war Syria boasting more and better equipment than in the 80s.


The point though of this entry is the Bab Tuma – Mohajreen line. It is apparently notorious as the line for Damascus gays that take cruising literally. I’ve heard this from several sources, but as the Damascus definition of homosexual involves men with long hair, men with tattoos, men with piercings and all other men who look a bit different I’ve been sceptical. Besides, everyone knows the French Ambassador was sent home after one scandal to many in the Souk al Bozra hammam (I’ve never bothered to substantiate this rumour), how many cruising spots can Sham have? The fixer though has been convinced Muhajareen-Bab Tuma is the line of vice ever since he was propositioned on it. It’s possible the man was just being friendly, but the fixer definitely doesn’t think so. His liberal concerns and respect for people who defy Syria’s strict idea of what’s socially permissible was almost completely overwhelmed by his annoyance that any one would assume that as a foreigner he was happy to engage in any kind of random sex. He was quite surprised not to find me at my most sympathetic.

An even manic-er monday

I have a new work, as my students would undoubtedly say. I now teach, or referee the flirting sessions of sexually frustrated, upper middle class Syrian 20 somethings, at the American Language Centre. Working there is kinda a cross between being a sixth former, a demi-god and everybody’s bitch. Until now, as my students would also say, I haven’t decided whether I want the job.

We have a great kitchen and sitting room to hang out in and ‘plan lessons’ while actually making ‘English teacher jokes’ and bitching about our students. At the moment the teachers divide roughly equally into three categories, those that are half Arab/ half English speaker (all combinations accepted), those that are married to, divorcing or the parents of Syrians, and random Brits. The chilling and drinking tea is the sixth former part of the equation and the highlight so far.

The ‘teacher’s room’ is also home to some fantastic resources and the ‘part timers,’ who are employed to do the teachers photocopying, know where all the books are and generally run everything. The female part timers in particular seem to think the divorces and randomers need lots of looking after and are always bringing in puddings and sweets for us. This is the demi-god part and is also great.

But the students, oh the students. Lots of them are pretty annoyed the moment a British teacher walks in to the room as they want to learn ‘the American accent,’ and are not shy about saying so. They don’t seem to think a quick explanation of dialectical diversity in the US and the use of the definite article in English is an appropriate response to this statement, but I don’t know what they think is. I mean me putting on an American accent wouldn’t be very convincing, and I’m not exactly gunna say ‘Ok, I’ll just pop out and find an American who’s free now.’

Then there’s the breakdown of the class. One of Syria’s most popular soap operas features bad girls tricking good girls into prostitution, hymen reconstructive surgery and poor boys sucking rich ones off in toilets, passionately platonic extra marital affairs and lots of heart-break. The characters all know each other from English class (the teacher is a real ESL teacher at Berlitz). Half my students seem intent on making their own version which is very annoying for the poor kids (I say kids, the majority are roughly my age, a chunk younger than my nice, respectful Merkz students) for who the cost of the course represents quite a sacrifice and who are learning English in an attempt to improve more than their social lives. Then there are the two types of men who are not used to being told what to do by young women and don’t like it now, the spoilt rich 20 something ones and the middle-aged business ones. The former, who live with their parents and can’t cook salad, are particularly annoying. I mean, they might be men, but I’m an adult. This is not to mention the ones with annoying ‘American’ mannerisms, who wander in with a cheery ‘yo mother from another brother,’ for their mates (I’m teaching a low-level this term) and the nervy girls who talk very very quietly or people with irrelevant (or at least incomprehensible to me) grammar questions. Did I mention we spend alot of time slagging off our students?

My experience isn’t enhanced by the fact that the only person on the staff that I don’t like is my trainer. She’s kind of distant, both literally and emotionally. Its kinda my fault that we’re not working well together, I assumed that she would take the lead in arranging the daily meetings, lesson planning sessions and class observations that form week ones training schedule, but I was wrong, I’ve hardly seen her and I’m out of my depth. The other teachers say she’s on my side, as she only ever says things like ‘you want to improve because you need the money’ I’d hate to see her with someone she’s got it in for.

The director spoke to me, my students have mentioned I’ve skipped loads of the curriculum, and he asked me why I wasn’t using the communicative activities or the DVD. I was like ‘What communicative activities? There’s a DVD? Who knew?’ but in rather better English. My trainer, my boss and I have now had words, so I’m pretty confident week two will be an improvement, but suffice to say I haven’t made a good first impression.

As the centre is right next door to the American Embassy, in the Jordanian Ambassadors basement, I was worried that I’d end up redundant if anyone set fire to the embassy, but it turns out that I get is free evacuation to the country of my choice should the US pull out its citizens, so now I’m kinda ‘bring it on Ya Soreya, I wanna holiday on Obama’s dollar.’

Beaver Commander

Life continues. My flatmate, The Hairy One, is editing a book of tswer, quranic interpretation, by a mandate era sheikh who’s notions of scientific research, logic and good writing have either dated or been lost in translation. Too much Mullaho is having a slightly serial effect on our lives.

‘Hay, listen to this’ my flat mate puts on his Mullaho voice and reads. ‘Wise and sagacious, noble, honorable and pure, gentle and kind. Who can hear the qualities of the beaver commander without feeling admiration?’ Do you think Beaver Commander is one of the appellations of Mohammad,’ he asks, in his normal voice ‘cus like beavers are hardworking, or is it a mistake?’

‘The only appellation of Mohamed I know is mostafah.

Humm. ‘the chosen one, the commander of the beaver’

We decided that as the Arabian Peninsula is not a land famed for its mighty rivers or many trees it was probably beaver free in the 14th century and its therefore unlikely that ‘beaver commander’ is one of Mohamed titles.

The Hairy One is also suffering after a hard drive accident that’s left him with 18 Bob Dylan albums and not much else. With a Mullaho and Dylan combination it was probably inevitable that we’d end up putting Mullaho to music, something that fills our spare time with joy. Our masterpiece starts ‘He spent his life in research, his name we’re gonna besmirch.’ I am responsible for providing harmonica effects, I don’t let having no instrument stop me.

The other night the hairy one insisted that we take advantage of living in a country with a middle eastern climate but a distinctly un-middle eastern approach to everyone’s favorite Arab invention: alcohol and go to Mushroom Park, just of Straight Street to drink beer and eat sujuk.

In former times Mushroom Park was the hang out of choice for language students with nothing better to do and Chammi youth who couldn’t afford to see and be seen anywhere else. Hardly had The Hairy One and I arrived and started wishing we hadn’t when we were swooped on by someone ‘The Fixer tries to avoid,’ and his friends who catapulted us into the world of ‘rich young Syrians who wish they were black American gangsters.’

They were very excited to see us, and were immediately telling us about there favorite month (April) and airport (Heathrow!), their uncles firm (boring) and asking us to help them get English teaching jobs (they spoke it flawlessly). What would daddy diplomat and uncle entrepreneur say if they could see their delicately reared offspring?

Our ones were lucky enough to be friends with someone who claims to be a genuine black man from Ohio. He was strangely elusive about why his family and he are living in Dwela, a suburb that makes Jermanna look structurally sound; we think hes a Somali refugee. All the Somalis I’ve met could tell at a glance that I don’t know about the differences between East and West coast rap, and then lectured me on it in American accents, though I’m told the women are very devout. We couldn’t tell if our friends barely incomprehensible English is Somali plus The Wire (His accent sounds spot on, but do they speak like that in Ohio?) or fluent gangster rapesse. He advised The Hairy One to avoid ‘the dog game,’ not to ‘masterfate,’ with an f, and to find himself a girlfriend.

Meanwhile the Syrians, one of which introduced himself as MC Wolf Rapper, were encouraging me to smell their genuinely Syrian cigarettes and their ‘Hennesseys.’ The Somali/American had taught them to refer to all strong liquor as Henessys and this was in fact XXL, 10% vodka-redbull in a tin and I did not appreciate em ramming it in my face. Despite being roughly my age, well traveled and well educated they were charmingly naive. They asked us if we’d ever heard of Hashiesh (has anyone in the UK over the age of 8 not?) and were amazed that people like us, who willingly drank 4% beer knew about drugs. We felt a bit bad about laughing at MC Wolf Wrapper and his Merry Men as they had no idea that we were, but they did provide us a name for our ‘bluesy rock songs with a story’ outfit, we’re Malice and Wonderland