Damascus and Me

As passionate as mine and Damascus’ love affair is, if she was a man I’d leave her. She’s just not very nice to me.

My landlord took advantage of my brief trip home to steal my furniture and change my locks. I’m reconciled to camping in my new flat, but I want Decembers rent, which I paid in advance, back. Owning white goods is the only ‘proper adult’ thing I’ve ever managed, I felt if put ‘own a fridge,’ on my CV it would prove that I’m not just a bum. Alas, I no longer have this tenuous claim to maturity.

My now ex landlord sits smoking, laughs at me, ‘teaches’ me new swearwords and then tells me lies. He maintains that a friend told him I’d left Syria, so of course he could rent my, now furnished, flat out to someone else. When I rocked up from Jordan too tiered to be angry, with hardly any Syrian money, he let me crash in a flat that has a family living in it, although they weren’t around. He thinks that after such munificent behaviour I cant make any claim on him, I think it confirmed he’s got a borderline criminal take on contract theory.

After an uneasy night waiting for Little Bear to come home and do his ‘someone’s been sleeping in my bed, and she still is’ act, I went off to the ALC to collect my pay checks. My colleagues were as cheerful as I was; the Americans had shut the place down and we’d all been made redundant.

This was the prelude to a series of sofa surfing adventures, the highlight of which was staying with a friends family. The husband is rich enough to set up a second home, complete with an additional wife. The first wife doesn’t like the idea and is attempting to up the family expenditure by breaking the furniture so it has to be replaced. Her sister in law, my friend, thinks this is typical Syrian jealousy, but I think her objections are fair enough and we spent an enjoyable morning chipping the varnish of a wardrobe that’s so hideous it has to be expensive.

My landlord has erected an ingenious paper fence between him and any sort of responsibility. The flat was built even more illegally than usual, so my contract was for a legal, but non-existent, house (troublesome foreigners such as myself are always running round waving our bits of paper at immigration officials, inconsiderately causing problems for slum landlords). The last person with a contract for my flat is the very Syrian who ‘stole my stuff and said I’d left.’ We’re at a bit of an impasse which the landlord failed to break by offering my friend money to say it was all his fault.

The friend saved most of my stuff, having had a call from the landlord demanding money, so I’ve still got my clothes and books; it could have been worse. None the less Damascus, what have I done to deserve your displeasure?

Damascus doesn’t treat me as well as I expect men to, but she gives me just enough to keep me interested. How can I dump the alleyways of the Old City when she’s lit by candles and I half expect to walk into one of The Thousand and One Nights? Yes, during the six hours a day she withholds electricity its too cold to manipulate a pen, but the air is clear enough to see the necklace of mountains that form a crescent moon around her. Covered in snow, they look like clouds that have become too solid to float and have sunk to earth as hills.

We seek refuge from the cold in cafés and discuss my friends unusual exam season problem. Men have two years in the army after education, and if an added disincentive for doing it now were needed conscripts stopped being released after serving their time in about April. My friends are trying to fail enough exams to fail the year, but not so many that their kicked out of uni. They reckon that the countries got several years of civil war ahead of it and I don’t see how they can spend the next 15 years as undergraduates, but then I don’t see what else they can do either.

Damascus, you are cruel to your lovers.

Random love storys

The defining woman, that relationship, in a friend of a friends life was a colleague. He really liked her, everything about her. on her half day she left the office to go home and he stood up and followed her out the building and onto the bus. half way back to Bab Tuma the person sitting next to her got off and she shifted over so my friends friend could sit. they talked until they reached the end of the line, where she asked him where he was going. he admitted he didn’t really know and invited her for a drink. when they got to Abu Georges he realised he’d left his bag and money in the office forgotten in the daze he’d followed her in. They had a couple waiting for a work mate to drop it off and they talked and talked and talked.
everyday for a couple of months they had a drink and a chat after work. then they’d go home and talk on the phone. eventually he admitted he wanted more. she agreed she did too, but that it wasn’t possible. hes not seen her since.
they never even kissed

My friends Syrian girlfriend, lets call her Nisreen, had had one previous boyfriend, who she was with for 6 months or so. Then she ended it because it wasn’t possible for it to go anywhere without getting married. they used to hold hands, and talk. Shes in her 20s but has to be home by 11pm, and they didn’t have anywhere to go to be alone. While sex was defenently not on the menu it meant they couldn’t do anymore than kiss shyly and slyly, without tongues, in deserted alleys with Nisreen being caught between doing what she wanted to do and the consequences of doing it. needless to say those consequences would have been far worse for Nisreen.

One of my European friends hear is going out with a Syrian guy in his mid twenty’s. initially he got other guys to buy condoms for him. now he buys his own, but only after going half way across town to a mall. Is that normal at home to?

The less said about my big exam the better, I think. My friend Shareen attempted to write hers in the persona of a Georgan girl that her teacher really likes, but discovered half way through that she couldn’t spell ‘Georgia’ in Arabic. R came round after he finished work at midnight to give me some last minute grammar; he clearly thought two days of exams, back to back, without some of his support would kill me. That paper was hard, but good. we do this thing called ‘imlah,’ its basically dictation. The person reading ours was a level 4 teacher and she went really fast and kept on making mistakes. Sometimes she put tanween (little lines at the end of words you don’t normally pronounce) on, sometimes she didn’t. half way through the director and his henchman came in and glued down pits of the exam papers we were writing on, pretty distracting. my class is pissed off, especially as  other classes say it was read really slowly with the long vowels (you don’t write the short ones) and stressed letters (which have a spechial mark) emphasized. tomorrow is the oral. I’m really looking forwards to ‘Mahad Wednesdays,’ our study group that will meet weekly at the Mahad.

The soot from my sobias stove pipe has just discovered Newton. I’m sat watching the fine black particles fall out of holes in the pipe like snow. like the real thing its beautiful as it falls but a real mess. Damascus is under a sobia induced smog, the city has a whole new way of being filthy. I keep on removing soot from my ears. I had an indoor BBQ at a friends flat for new years and a really good time. R and I practiced talking about it for my oral several hours before it happened

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.

Ups and Downs

This, my friends, is beer. Lebanese beer.I had one! Not bad, in a largery kind of way.

I was invited to a house party given on Thursday by a friend of a girl at the institute, and managed to negotiate an eta back of midnight. ‘Oh yeah,’ I thought. ‘that’s quite a rise from 9.30pm, the haggling in the Souk el Hamdie must be rubbing off on me. combined with a degree in argument and persuasion I’m unstoppable.’

We met in a cafe at Bab Tuma, the main gate into the christian quarter of the city, which we rampaged through looking for each other and buying beer before being led down an alleyway and up stairs that made me glad I was at the front of the crowd, and hence not going to be trusting my life to them after they’d had all of us undermining their structural integrity. At the top we found Ahmed, whose house it was, and Paul, who was responsible for the party. I hadn’t met any anglophones and I was getting very board of talking slowly for the foreigners , so I was excited to meet Harry, a monosyllabic Aussie, and Paul, an Irishman with a degree in International Politics from a certain world renowned university on the Welsh coast. Harrys monosyllabic nature was a bit of a disappointment, but Paul and I enjoyed reminiscing about departmental characters.

Mareike, a tall, slightly awkward German girl, who decided she wanted to study Arabic after acidentily going to Jordan rather than Gana in her gap year, and I made like Cinderella before the party really got going. As we walked back we planned to spend Saturday hiking from Sedynia or Mal’ula, Christian villages in the mountains near Damascus.

Friday was a quite day of study, until I went to an internet cafe to print out more copies of my passport so I can get my rental contract. After discovering that my family had sold their house this seemed like a pointless activity and I went home to talk to them about it.
I’m mainly board by the whole thing, but I am annoyed that they didn’t tell me themselves, and didn’t let me know straight away. They say they had to tell Muhamed Iskander, whose company set me up with them, first.  I’m also annoyed that they haven’t said ‘sorry, I know its deeply inconvenient.’ instead its being treated as the will of god, something we have no control over. They want a ground floor apartment, as Hanadi, the second daughter, won’t leave the house on her own, and the Mothers quite old to be going up and down stairs all the time, which is fair enough. But I don’t believe that in Syria (where regestering for the libary involves handing over copies of your passport, a photo and your student card, then getting a second card to take books out, and a third to take them in) you can sell your house in two days. They’d been prone to flinging theire arms round me, playing with my hair and telling me they loved me, they were my sisters and they thought of me as a third unmarried daughter, which I’m a bit British to appreciate. I’m more anoyed about it now. Their response to me needing a rental contract ASAP is ‘in Syria we have many students from (long list of countries). The government is used to students from (long list of countries). nobody minds if you overstay your visa.’ Then long conversations with Muhamed Iskander about how much money I should get back. Give me the Belfry as Friday night entertainment any day.

I met Mareike and Nisrene, a Dutch Muslim who wants to learn the language of the Koran before taking up accountancy, as planned and complained about being told I had a week to find a new place on our way to Sedynia.

We sat outside the convent of Sedynia, sucking a Syrian take on the Twister with an obceanly red inside that left us looking like 8 year olds who’d been at theire mothers lipstick. Nisrene was amazed by everything she’d seen, specifically how like her hijab the nuns habits were. She had only flip flops and found the concept of walking long distances in the sun on rough ground for pleasure so confusing we relented and jacked in the hiking. Instead Mareike and I scrambled around on some rocks. She suggested I get hold of Pauls number. Hes been hear for two years, has abandoned teaching English and is now employed to make translations of the works of a 19th century sheik readable. (He says getting the text to flows not too hard, but making it readable is beyond him.) Mareike pointed out that, as the Damascus expat scenes man in the know and general fixer, he should be able to sort me out with something better than I could find myself, and anyway it would be easier.

A string of text messages and phone calls later and the upshot of it all is i’m sat in an internet cafe printing out lots of documents so I can move into a small room in the house we had the party in. I’m joining three wannabe dentists, from Turkey, Italy and Venezuelas Syrian comunity respectivly, and an Australian girl whose studying at the same institute I’m at. Italys refusal to teach its children English means that the lingua franca was Arabic, and now we don’t have one. I’m sure we’ll live.

Look what I got in my inbox

arabesk studies in damascus to me
show details 3:53 AM (16 hours ago)


how are you?

i have a small problem because the family just informed me that they cancel the contract for renting because they have sold the flat. they never informed me of this and they took us by surprise. they have to deliver the house this week.

YOU have got a small problem? YOU have a SMALL problem? And they informed you at 4am? Somehow I doubt that. I think you sat on this for an evening at lest.

do you have friends that know rooms in Bab Touma or Old City?

if you want, we can assist you looking for rooms. i have some phone numbers contact or websites.

please let us know.

as it is only one month you are in the famiuly, we will refund you the rest of your money

Mate, you are refunding me every night I havn’t slept theire, none of this rounding up bollocks.

sorry for the inconveniences.

Muhammad Iskandar

I need a rental contact ASAP or I’m going to be back on Mendip within a month. I do not need this.

Mohamad ‘really pretty usless’ Iskander sent me a text message asking me to check my email when I got the chance, but I didn’t expect this. He could have called. The family, who I live with, could of told me. This is, in a word, gay.

First day at school.

I woke up, bright and early and immediately wished it wasn’t quite so early. First day being a foreigner getting taught Arabic at the Ma’had institute.

I was a bit worried I didn’t know what class room I was supposed to be in. What I had somehow not realized was that absolutely no one had any idea what class they were supposed to be in. the director read some names of a list, then walked away. All the names followed, wanting to find out why he’d read of their names. The rest of us also followed him, wanting to know why we weren’t on the list. eventually someone entered the swirling confusion.
‘beginners Arabic. room 12.’
Beginners Arabic all headed to room 12, where we gave the director our names and took a seat. that makes it sound orderly, but take my word for it it wasn’t. Maybe the intention was to give us a tour of the building, but apparently the director can’t write names on a list unless hes striding around, with a tail of students running after his waddling figure like they’re his ducklings.

I got the second last seat. Later students had to bring their own.
at just gone 10 the lesson started, with 30 odd in the room.
At 10.20 the director came back and called people out by nationality and sent them to room 11.

The class cut down to size, we began. It was pretty confusing. No language other than Arabic was being used, and it took me a bout three qauters of an hour to figure out I’d lernt ‘my, your (feminine), your (masculine) hers and his’ name and I You, You, His and Hers’ not ‘My, his, hers no idea and no idea.’

My teacher may not be one of those rare students to get an A* in the Arabic equivalent of TEAFL, unlike a certain Ms Parker who I’m proud to call a friend, but equally I know this way of learning doesn’t suit me. Time, methinks, to track down an old fashioned book of Arabic grammar and a private teacher for the afternoons.

After class some of the other girls and I went to pick up the results of our mandatory aids test. Lots of the other students are either from the non Arabic speaking Islamic world, or Japan & South Korea. The overwhelming majority of the European kids are German, though Italy, France and Holland can also boast a pupil each. They all seem quite nice.The is one woman who had her son, aged about 6, with her. He was well behaved, but if the teacher is going to continue teaching him as well as us we are going to be their for quite a while.

Organisation and Identity

I think I’m registered on the course and due to start on Sunday. Its hard to tell, all of the other students, and most of the staff spoke Arabic throughout the registration thing. I had ques pointed to me and when i got to the front of them I had the peaces of paper taken away from me and replaced with new bits. Sometimes a new que was pointed to me, though occasionally i was given bits of paper with addresses written on them in Arabic. sometimes other students were able to translate. usually they couldn’t. eventually the paper chase ended, and i was told to come back on Sunday (the Monday of the Middle East and the first day of term).


Inroling involved doling out passport photos like I’m a minor European royal with an over inflated opinion of my own importance, and eventually i ran out. I found a man with a camera and photoshop, tidied my hair and sat down with my ears out and mouth shut, passport style.

‘smile,’ he ordered, begged and cajoled, snapping away till he had a suitable shot.

he uploaded it onto the computer, and made it the right size. perhaps i should explain it was an unusually hot day, I was red and sweaty, and my hair was all over the place. this clearly upset the man, who photoshoped wisps of my hair out. he then toned my skin shade down so i wasn’t as red, before removing all blemishes and shine on my skin. He wasn’t satisfied though. He whitened the whiles of my eyes, then amped up the blue of my eyes then turned his attention to my mouth, which needed whiter teeth and redder lips.


The application forms for the institute are not filed in alphabetical order according to surname, rather they are kept in loose piles with passport photos on the top. None of secretary’s who’ve looked have recognised me as the owner of my photo yet.

asalam alacum

I’m finaly hear. Today is the first day that the weather has been normal; untill now its been 5 degrees higher than the standerd mid september temriture of 30 degrees.

I’m not having a particually great time, and I dont see why I should pretend that queing, filling in forms in triplcate, drinking endless cups of verry sweet tea (the idea of ‘no suger’ is foreign to Syria, although I know the arabic  that is suposed to mean ‘no suger’ it actualy means ‘less suger’) and being told that I am in the wrong que is my idea of fun. besides no one would belive me if I did. A huge amount of effort, sign language and mutual uncomprehencion are having a small, but definite, effect on the  paper based obstical course between me and the start of term.

On the plus side the people who I live with are very nice, though this means a lot of sitting around smiling at each other when it would be so much easyer to curl up, ignore them and read a book. I have had the difference between omlet and boiled egg explained to me repeatedly, in a veriaty of languages. Did I mention I  pretty much never have a clue what is going on? I’m sure I’m suposed to do something with the knowlage that a boiled egg is, well a boiled egg while an omlet is an omlet, I’m just not sure what. Ideas?

I thought I was getting a mother, a year seven kid and a primary school one, not two daughters in theire mid and late 30s respectivly, but no matter. They are falling over themselves to help me with arabic (I’m getting pretty good at the alphabet), but the trade off is a massive reduction in the freadom I’m used to. The elder daughter Amal (which means ‘hope’ though is also the name of a malitia that figured promently in the early days of the Lebanease civel war) speeks good english, but I have to consentrate alot. needless to say the things i know about Syrian history are irrelevent, and it apears my knowlage of american boy bands is sadly lacking. aparently Syria dosn’t put on its shades and get into its ride with Justian Derulio, and the Klaxons havn’t released a disapointing second album, they havn’t released one at all. More abut her another time

I think I live in a predomently Shia area, as the roads are all named after leading Lebanease or Iranian Shias. It seams to be pretty up and coming (aparently the street lights cost 2 and half thousand dollers each), though yesterday I got lost and wandered around in a mudbrick shanty town with lots of cows. I quite enjoyed that.

I think I need to go do boring stuff now.


PS. I am sorry abvout the spelling, the efort of spell checking it apears to be breaking the internet, so I hope you can deal with it.