Drunk and Disturbing Me

We’re still in Tunisia, and I don’t really know what I think about it. Tunisians and I need to work really hard to understand each other’s Arabic, and they can’t believe it wouldn’t just be easier to talk French. The Tunisian old cities are similar enough to Damascus to remind me how much I miss Sham. It’s worse than being homesick because the Damascus I miss has been shot to shit, the people I shared it with scattered and scarred by the war. My relationship with Sham is in its Sinead O’Connor phase; obviously it’s over but Nothing Compares To You, Damascus. Our break up is still too recent for me to want to be impartial; I just wanna be in pre-war Syria.

So clearly I’m not fair to Tunisia. It’s probably amazing really. I’m swinging from loving the rolling hills of Cap Bon, backed the improbably blue Med and the medina’s narrow alleys, with doors and windows picked out in blues as unlikely as the sea, and thinking about Syria. But I don’t think it’s only that my second country has dumped me. Too many Tunisians just seem unloved, uncared for. So far only one person to come up to us after dark hasn’t reeked of beer. My Syrian friends drank, some of them allot, often cheep vodka outside, but it seems Tunisia’s public drunkenness is of a different breed. My friends enjoyed getting pissed. Simple as that. Both Syria and Egypt had an underclass for whom survival was a struggle, but somehow they didn’t seem as desolate as their Tunisian counterparts. I can’t think of a Syrian equivalent of the man who showed me and Gerard round a mosque today and smelt of alcohol, madness and neglect. Despite living on the edge of a refugee camp in an Iraqi suburb I saw one person in Syria combine hopelessness and booze. After two years it is literally shocking to see the pairing again. I discussed it with Gerard a, who made thinking noises. The boys not being as surprised as me (although they were pretty surprised by the toothless beggar who tried to kiss me at 10am) makes me wonder about Britain.

We’re in Kairoun at the moment which claims to be the fourth holiest place in the Islamic world. They’re wrong, Damascus’ Umayyad mosque is, but it’s still a relaxed, residential old city. I like it, particularly the well that’s linked to one in Mecca. A bunch of guys with a banging sound system have taken over the piazza between our hotel and the walls of the old city. They’re playing a catchy song about Jihad, draped everything with posters about spreading the revolution and are busy fund raising for Gaza. They’re having a great time. Tunisia is as changeable as my feelings.


Tunisia Map


Its the 12th and I’m getting cold feet. Egypt seems fine, the demo that greeted me as I got off the bus in Tahir square was pretty small (and since then its looked a lot more dramatic on TV than in the flesh). But I’m one day, 2 hrs and 24 minutes late for my roundevouz with Gerard. We said that we’d return to our chosen cafe every hour on the hour, or at lest I said that in a message I hope he received, so inshallah he’ll turn up soon. meanwhile Llwyelyn is still in the UK, possibly dieing of viles disease. nether of these little things can be categorized as good omans.

On the plus side I’m doing better with the local Arabic than I expected. I understand, except when I don’t, in which case i completely, comprehensibly, unconditionally fail to understand. admittedly the Egyptians laugh, and if they can switch into English, when I lisp the Arabic exultant of ‘forsouth, i beg of you enlighten me as to the location of…’ Syrian dialect has, so far, done the trick.

Even better, while in 2007Ciro overwhelmed me as much as she beguiled me this time I’m complicatedly in love. The city would remind me of an old woman who’d been beautiful 60 years before, were it not that she is so alive. No matter how beautiful her streets are they are filthy and even the goats in the Ally made of the wreck of glorious Mameluke buildings seemed to eat plastic bags with vitality. The places outside the maelstroms of hooting cars seem some how intense, like a lot of enagy is going into chilling out.

It is impossible to tell how much the revolution has changed Egypt since I was hear before. The almost complete absence of low denomination notes that complicated everything has been circumvented by minting a load of coins and the citys fleet of aging pergots seems diminished, the fallen war horses replaced with Dewos. I doubt the Arab Spring is responsible though.
People are willing, although not particularly pushy, to talk politics. Everyone says they’re disappointed by the revolution, but other than jobs and freedom cannot say what they expected from it. Someone said that drinking in the street was allowed now, but he neither approved nor though that it was enough for the price Egypt had paid for the revolution.

In the same way its hard to imagine Ciroas ornate architecture getting the scrub it needs and the pipes rerouted underground its hard to imagine how her uncountable children can create the jobs and improved living standards they revolted for. But then overthrowing
Mubarak took quite some imagining, and yet it happened.

In Cairo the weather isnt as hot as I’d expected. My personal conditions and forecast is ‘slightly over clouded, set to clear.’ I hope that Gerard shares my sunny outlook. As he hasn’t emailed I assume either his cool hasn’t melted, or some disaster that makes my endless hours in Gatwick pale into insignificance has befallen him. maybe the is a place in the sun for Egypt as well.


One of the reasons I thought Gerard would make a great travelling companion was his self reliance. we’ve crossed Tahir square a few times en rout to the Egyptian Museum and the Nile a few times, and seem to have hit it when its been calm. Certainly it hasn’t been stormy enough to dislodge the touts. After staggering out of the Egyptian museum thinking 3000 wasn’t that old after looking at things from the dawn of history, it was refreshing to stand at the center of contemporary events. The are some fantastic murals commemorating the martyrs of the revolution. I couldn’t help wondering how meany miles of wall will be needed to remember Syrias dead as I looked at them.

While we’ve been sight seeing Llwyelen has decided to delay his demise. Barring disasters, and I’m not sure my luck has recovered enough for it to be safe to bar disasters, he’ll join us tomorrow evening.

Modays – Manic Again.

Economically Syria is about on par with Greece now. Sanctions, the import ban, ongoing chaos, the price police. There are theoretically 45 Syrian Lira to the dollar, but it hit a low of about 104. but a month ago it was up to 68, and, theoretically again, I’m pleased because it’s good for Syria*. Things have got a bit cheaper on the street, and I do still have 22 theoretically nonexistent lira in my wallet. Of course, it is a bit annoying that the only thing about the situation that is improving is the only thing that benefits me by being rubbish – I have been driven back to the world of work.

It hasn’t improved in my absence. In my previous teaching jobs we could just get on and do it. Not here. We have to use the in house method, which is similar enough to the one that was inflicted on me when I first came to Syria for me to be having flashbacks. The teachers hate it, it doesn’t work. The center is papered with dire, ungrammatical, threats detailing the punishments for not using the method, all signed by the director. Hes got a network of spies and is always popping up unexpectedly, promising new wonders from the headquarters in London and threatening to withhold parts of peoples saleries. Hes worried that we might steal the method, nothing to do with teaching is allowed out the building.  At the same time, its strangly difficult to hate him. It’s Syria in miniature. Like the big Syria, the beuacracy is pointless, and emploies 5 clueless people and one person that does everything. No problem is ever solveable, I might think I can cover a coulleges class, they might think it, but the 5 clueless people know its not so. Again, like in the big Syria, nothing can ever be explained. If the students say ‘a orange pen,’ I must tell them they’re wrong, but not why. Given my low tollerence for both rules and stupidity its not suprising I’ve become a little dissident. Students I’ve given cover lessons to have requested I replace theire standered teacher, which is embarrassing, and others have asked me to do privet lessons, which is forbidden, but with the current shortage of native speakers in Syria i dont think little Syria can knock on my door in the night and fire me, which is a great pity.

*My flat mate studies economics. He reckons it’s a disaster. At 104 L to the dollar Syrian exports were incredibly attractive internationally, fueling economic growth. This is the kind of willful stupidity that I’ve come to expect of economists. Aside from the war, ‘made in Syria’ means ‘will break immediately.’ Abers agony uncal got it right when he described the profession as a pestilent sore on the vagina of humanity

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.’

Cant think of a witty heading

I know I haven’t updated my blog for ages. At the moment I feel like any time spent not studying Arabic is time wasted, so I haven’t got much to write about and if I have done something (attending the début performance of Syria’s first privately owned baritone saxophone, some leaving parties, going to the train museum.) then I need to make up for lost study time, rather than wasting yet more time writing about it. Today however it took me 6 hours to extend my visa, in August, in Ramadan (coming soon), and I think that was enough Arabic for one day, so I’m lying on the balcony wondering if I’ll ever rehydrate while writing about my recent adventures.


Damascus neighbourhoods have character; in fact I know a lot of people who are more nondescript than the average Chami suburb. Jermanna lets the good times roll, my hood in Jermanna Owl deals with having the blues by getting itself some rhythm to go with em. A suspicious Palestinian clearly thought Habibi and I were up to no good until we told him where we live, when he became all smiles. Sahilya is a Costa Coffee embellished yuppie land, while neighbouring Mohajaeen is half warm and traditional and half the exclusive home of the president. Living where I do its easy to forget the rest of Syria and think its all pretty much like where I live. It’s hard to believe that only 40 minutes away, sandwiched between Mohajareen and conservative, drab, Roknadeen a friend of mine pulls on long sleeves until she’s safely out into a more western part of the city.


They are also incredibly self-contained. Everywhere I’ve lived I could have lived happily without ever leaving my street and the two next to it, had I not studied and worked. People tend to work and socialise in their hood, and with their family’s. One of my Syrian friend’s lives in a building where every single one of the flats is lived in by her family, bar the hottest, top floor flats and an estate office on the wasteland outside my flat has a banging sound system and metamorphoses into the hangout for local whisky drinkers. Arbeen might be closer to me than to you, but it has as much impact on your life as on mine.


Before things started happening their life was taking me to Roknadeen quite a lot. In Jermaanaa I am pretty much the only 20 something not wearing skin tight jeans and a top with cleavage. In Roknadeen, the corner, of religion, I am the only 20 something not wearing an ankle length coat and head scarf. In Jermanna we say ‘Hows you,’ or ‘Good morning,’ when we enter a shop. In Roknadeen they start by saying ‘peace be open you, we say ‘health’ when some one sneezes and reply ‘on your heart.’ they both say ‘praise to be god’ it’s very strange.


Just another manic Monday

Some would tell you that teaching English as a foreign language is about education. These people are at best cute little delusional souls working for the British Council, at worst they’re lying to you (as the BC is shut because of the situation it’s probably the latter.) English teaching actually lives at the corner of employment hell where the service industry meets entertainment and exploitation of foreign labour (I admit, I’m several rungs up from Morecombe bay cockle pickers but listen to my Middle Class tale of wow anyway goddamit). My predecessor impressed on me that the key part of my job is insuring that I, rather than my boss, handle all the money and keep all the records. It’s the only way to guarantee I get paid. I failed and my boss, Al Moder, is bukraing (This is a new verb, derived from the Ameya word for tomorrow). Other English teacher’s reckon that their bosses habitually telling them things that are not true is a result of a lax view of lying in the Quran. I’m not quite sure what the Quranic line on lying is, but either way I recon its because the bosses hope the problem will have gone away by tomorrow. Besides, my boss isn’t a Muslim.


Highlights so far involve Al Moder asking one of my friends if she’d take one of my classes from me. She said she we were friends and that she isn’t a job stealer, or at least not when mates are involved. Al Moder then tried to arrange for her to have it without either of us noticing. Being friends we worked out what was occurring almost instantly, and went into ask him what he was playing at.


‘I just hoped you wouldn’t talk about it,’ he said, with the air of a child who has just been told Father Christmas isn’t real. (My predecessor would say that this is just another example of the Arab failure to realise the future will come. Sometimes it’s hard to stick to my liberal guns and disagree with him).


Al Moder wasn’t put off though. He gave the group a weeks holiday (but didn’t tell me about it) while coming up with plan B. This was basically plan A, to see if it would work a second time. It didn’t.


My boss also has an annoying habit of telling me I have a second class when I think I’m finished for the evening. I know Gunter Wallraff won’t be writing about me any time soon, but it’s still annoying, as is the way he talks my students about me in deep Ameya he thinks I can’t understand. He’s right.


The students themselves also know what they want from English classes. They like writing on the board and will sulk if they don’t get it. No matter that the word is ‘rain forest’ and it’s written, big and bold, in the book.


They also insist on doing reading aloud. Teachers hate this, texts always have far too many new words, the whole things time consuming and the debate about on the spot pronunciation correction rages. None the less those of us that want to keep our cowboy jobs have to do it. The books I’m using have kinda ‘multicultural,’ readings. It just highlights how limited my students horizons are. Have they been to Rome? Do they know how to dance the Tango? Have they eaten sushi? Where did they last go on holiday? No, no, no, and to their village, same as always. Five of my students have been outside of Syria, two of them went to Lebanon, 45 minutes away, and one worked in the gulf.


Unsurprisingly students don’t like failing. From my shitty little Mahad to the dizzying heights of the British Council, students complain to the administration if they’ve been failed. The humblest institute to the most prestigious will ‘pass’ their students if nagged enough. Pretty galling as they’d all pass if they did the work. One of my friends quit the BC after a student was bumped up.


On the whole students don’t like work. My students don’t do their homework, I just teach them the same words class in, class out (Fucking Feraz has put pen to paper once. Someone wrote the link for a funny U Tube video on the board.). The American Language Centre courses are really long, removing the need for independent study.


Students also don’t like not understanding the class. If a student doesn’t understand it’s the teachers fault, never a consequence of having ‘passed’ because they told the administration they’d quit if they were failed. Any student in this position should complain to the administration about the teacher. Cowboys will then be replaced if possible.


Strangely students are on the whole less fussed about being able to talk the language than they are about completing books. Having finished Interchange 2b (although not being able to actually talk English) is infinitely superior to talking English but only having done interchange 1B. As you repeat ‘I. Want. A. Damascus. Map,’ to a blank faced Syrian tourism official, rest assured they’ll have completed Touchstone 3 and know far more about the present perfect than you do*.


For some reason none of this dampens my enthusiasm for teaching. Despite explaining what Margaritas are to bemused Syrians and despite getting down on my knees (literally, they like funny foreigners) to beg them to do their homework I love my students very much. I sympathize with there laziness and the three who work warm my heart. Despite fighting my boss for money and despite erratic working hours I do actually enjoy my work.


*When my friend was here we met a site guide who spoke very little English. He got us all to leap over a huge gap in a castle, cheerfully explaining in Arabic that many tourists do this but only one has ever fallen, and he was Japanese.


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.