The Eid of Dead Sheep (New, improved version)

Its Eid al Adha again, the feast of the sacrifice that forms the culmination of the hajj and commemorates Jacobs willingness to slit his sons throat. Christians say Jacob was asked to murder Isaac, the important one in the biblical tradition. The Quran is more interested in his brother Ishmael, and it’s his not quite being sacrificed that we’re celebrating. This year Syrians said “kul youm eid kul nas shaheed”-every day is Eid, every person a martyr, meaning that with The Situation it’s inappropriate to celebrate. Others said beforehand they couldn’t get into the spirit and it would just lead to more killing at the mosques.

None the less Damascus is at her best. Everyone is walking around in there new eid clothes, the young boys all strutting like gangsters in miniature shiny suits, or playing protesters and government with incredibly realistic BB guns. The girls have all been given winter clothes and are slightly too hot, but are flaunting their finery anyway. The Druze celebrate this eid (though they don’t go on the hajj) but Jermaana is pretty low key. In the mokhem, though, the Palestinians are making up for any lack of enthusiasm. The mini fairground rides are being swung energetically and the men who usually sell veg from horse drawn carts are giving the kids rides or hiring their horses to the shabab. Intellectually I know that galloping an Arab stallion down the Jermanna high street into incoming traffic, or taking it onto the ring road for a spin, is not a good idea. Physically I’ve got scars from the last time I rode a horse without a helmet. Emotionally the young men are clearly enjoying it more than their steeds, and I want a go anyway. I can’t decide if I’m being sensible or boring not going horse riding, but as this is theoretically the last day of Eid I probably won’t make up my mind before it ends. (One of the things I love about Sham is the way people have so much fun during eid that they just don’t stop at the religiously mandated end)  The next two paragraphs are pretty graphic, you’ve been warned.

This is the Eid of the sacrifice, traditionally people sacrifice sheep outside their houses and throw the blood around, but it seems to be acceptable to get ones butcher or sheep seller to slaughter it if one doesn’t have the know how. Sheep are penned up at the sides of roads, the blood stained fleeces of their dead brethren in the gutter next to them. The Sydia Zanab high street, which has a high concentration of butchers, is practically an open air killing line. Theoretically its haram, forbidden, to let sheep see their flock-mates last moments, and Syrian national pride is built on, among other things, adhering to this rule. None the less they do not always keep it. At the far left a pen of living sheep. Next, slumped in the gutter a meter away, a headless body. Besides that a sheep strung up on a hook, being skinned. To the right a butcher cheerfully de-gutting another sheep, waving around sheep guts (who knew that sheep had such thin intestines?) and wishing everyone a happy eid. Further to the right the meat on the hooks doesn’t resemble sheep, other than the stomach in the bloody gutter and some artistically arranged heads. Then another sheep pen. Honestly, I must admit the sheep, unlike the flies, seem unphased by the death that surrounds them. I once saw two outside a mosque both very distressed by the slaughter of the first, in progress as I passed, but it seems that they’re only upset by sheep writhing as their throats are slit. Once their companion is actually dead they don’t seem able to connect what they’ve seen or the smell of blood with more of the same.

It takes quite a lot of thrashing around and more time for a sheep to bleed to death. The knife wielders either string them up before going for the jugular or stand on their heads as their lifeblood joins that of their brothers in the road. Apparently killing camels is actually quite dangerous as they lash out so much, for so long, in their death throws. I am not squeamish; I left Slaughter Street and had a lamb kebab. I’m less into animal rights than I was before spending a year in a country without human rights. None the less I whole heartedly support the Dutch attempt to ban halal and kosher slaughter. While it may have been the most humane method of slaughter when the Quran was revealed, technology has, elhamduallah, improved since the 7th centaury. Ijthad, independent reasoning, allows (depending on who you talk to) for flexibility in interpreting the Quran, and some well respected religious men, including one of the 4 rightly guided caliphs, argue that some of it is only relevant in the perfect Islamic state. We now have a way of slaughtering sheep that doesn’t leave them conscious and bleeding for the last 4 minutes of their lives. I think the sidewalk sacrifice is a good thing, if people are gunna eat meat they should know where it comes from, and the eid al adha meat is going to the poor. People opposing the Dutch ban should shut up and watch halal slaughters in action. They should learn that that 3/4 of ‘Halal’ chicken in the EU is killed by machines, whereas various schools of sharia insist animals must be slaughtered by a person, and that some Sharia schools argue animals should be stunned. Then knowing where halal meat comes from, they can see if they feel like talking.

On a personal note my life has changed radically. The Hairy One went to the Lebanese Border to buy a new Visa, border runs being six monthly events for Sham based language students. It’s never officially been possible to by a visa at the border, and its becoming an increasingly unrealistic proposition. The Hairy One got unlucky, but his employers tried to help him get back into Syria. For a mere 2000us they thought they could arrange for an unmarked car full of mukhberat to swoop down on Beruit, grab him, and drive him over the border very fast, but then found a cheaper method of getting him home. However Beirut is an expensive city and the hairy one was not well paid. He had a choice of hunting cats and eating them, or getting a job. He went for option B and decided he preferred being a waiter to an English teacher. He’s not coming home.


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.


19 Green Bottles, Sitting on a Wall.

I was sat with some friends, 1 westerner and 3 Syrians, at about 10 last night when one of the Syrians got a phone call. There were protesters outside the Umayyad mosque, about a 1000 them. The police had apparently tried to disperse them, but failed. We started talking about government corruption, and how the government needed to get rid of people who use their position to enrich themselves, by whatever means that takes, even if they were brothers, mothers, or more pertinently cousins of the people who are supposed to make sure it doesn’t happen. Thinking about it now though, it was the other Westerner who did most of the talking, though he does like the sound of his own voice so this is hardly unusual. Pausing only to concoct a cover story (we wanted ice cream from Bakdash) the Westerner and I got a bus into town to check out the action. Two of the Syrians felt the protest was good news and were quite excited; the other seemed quite ‘whatever’ about the whole thing. None of them came with us, one of them on the grounds that if the revolutions come it’ll be there in the morning, which while probably correct, doesn’t seem to be the logic of a newly empowered youth, taking his and his countries destiny into his own hands. When we got the mosque nothing was happening, nor was it actively not happening like in Saudi, where there were police stationed every 5 meters. The piazza in front of the mosque looked its usual night-time self, with cars parked and a few street sellers. We repaired to the ice cream shop and discussed Ameya grammar while watching a woman in a face veil eating ice-cream. It’s not unusual to see veiled women with an ice cream, but I’ve never seen their faces while they eat and have no idea how they do it.


Today I passed the mosque shortly after midday prayers. Other than a denser than usual tour group presence, the mosque and Hammedya were pretty much the same as usual. The square in front of the mosque is used as a car park overnight, but is normally empty of cars in the morning, I don’t know if there’s a bylaw enforcing this. Today the cars are still in place, which could be a coincidence that signals how confident people are that nothing will happen and trash their vehicles, or it could be a way of making it harder for people to assemble. Nothing online about yesterday’s protests, but from asking around it seems that something, though no one knows what, happened.


Sex and Sensible Behaviour

Having C here was great. Running around with such a fine specimen of masculinity, however, did make it more obvious that I was a second class citizen. Some men wouldn’t talk to a mere woman like me when there was a man available. In Islam men become ritually unclean through physical contact with women. I don’t see why this means they can’t talk to me. The tout who wanted us to hire his taxi and addressed ¾ of his conversation, despite it being wholly in Arabic, to C would have been amusing, except I find it harder to understand what people say if they stare into my habib’s eyes, not mine. I think the tout thought my refusal was unreasonable, and was therefore appealing to a nicely rational man. C, very annoyingly, made a lot of excuses and denied this dynamic for two and a half weeks before a man came up to us on a bus and chatted to C. The closest he came to acknowledging my existence was standing on my foot.


R and I were walking through Jermanna the other day when someone asked us ‘how much?’ R said something in Arabic, and unless it was in deep Swaida Ameya he didn’t say ‘for you, a good price,’ but again the man asked ‘ardesh?’ At this point I lost it.

‘Who’s a prostitute? You pikey animal! How am I a prostitute? You son of a prostitute!’ I yelled in Arabic. ‘I’m a student, you seller in the street of overpriced, poor quality goods.’

It’s hard to know who was more surprised, the wannabe punter or R.

‘Sorry, sorry.’

‘O.’ R looked at me, ‘who taught you these words?’

‘Ibn Sharmoutas the name of one of the cats, H gave it to me. Hwain comes from the hairy one and D taught me the others.’

‘Did you make sentences?’

‘No. I remembered these words pretty easily, but I did write most of them down.’

‘One day, you will be good in Arabic. You are very good in these words. Fast, good lufzz…’

‘Shukran shabeb.’


Animal is pretty much the worst thing you can say in Arabic, street seller of overpriced crap is all one word, and I may have used the plural of pikey. It’s the total extent of my ability to be non-sexually rude in Arabic.


Most of the time I don’t really notice that I’m a woman in a man’s world. All the foreigners here get stared at, alot and I often don’t notice when it is a sexual thing. P does, my good lufzz (pronunciation) of these words probably actually comes from him vocally defending my honour. It’s not wise for me to randomly make friends with men when I’m out or smoking argelia like the boys all do, but I’m not a massive fan of random people anyway. As a woman I do get to have a closer relationship with Syrian girls though, a whole word that’s shut of to the guys.


What annoys me, and it really annoys me, is the way men think they have a right to talk to me. The winter here was hard, but it’s often warm during the day now, and there’s a bit of spring in the air. H calls it ‘the month of the cats.’ men in the street step out in front of me and say, in a tone that expects compliance, ‘I want to talk to you’ or ‘I want to be your friend.’ As they’re stood in front of me I can’t really ignore them. ‘I don’t want to be your friend,’ I reply in Arabic and walk round them. ‘Why,’ they ask. My Arabic doesn’t extend to asking ‘what do you think gives you the right to demand an explanation of me? Who the hell do you think you are to presume you can just talk to me? Bugger off.’

It’s the assumption, implicit in the question ‘why,’ that their desire to talk to me overrides my desire to be left alone or to listen to music that angers me. It’s symptomatic of the relationship between men and women here. The sense of entitlement and superiority men have in their relationships with women.

People follow me, demanding ‘why won’t you talk to me?’ Syrian men are renowned for being pussies, its not really threatening, but these guys sense that they are justified in doing what ever they like is extremely unattractive.


There was no one around at 11.30 AM the other day in Jermanna when I walked to the cash point, and some how it was different. No one apart from two men on a motor bike, slowly idling along besides me. There’s not much pavement, but I pretty much managed to keep some parked cars between me and them. I could get a PHD in walking confidently while ignoring people, but that didn’t mean I liked it when, at the deserted junctions, they circled round me. Eventually I made it to the main road and lost them, but it did shake me up.


Jermaanas not the best neighbourhood and some horrible things have happened to women in it. Something like 8 women have been pulled into cars in broad daylight, raped and either murdered or tortured and abandoned in the countryside. When the police asked people why they didn’t intervene they said that they didn’t want to get involved, that they thought it was a family thing and therefore OK.


A friend is dating a girl who works in the justice department here. The above isn’t a rumour, it is fact. I’ve always assumed that, provided I don’t do anything stupid with sex or drugs I’ll be fine.

The problem is that people do sometimes assume I’m doing something stupid with sex*, or that I will do if they ask me enough. A taxi driver curb crawled me the other day, he started be telling me he’d drive me for no money, he ended up offering me money. Spring has its downsides, I’m telling you. Jermaana prostitution is an Iraqi thing, but there are Eastern European and Russian girls working in Cham. It’s important, as a woman, to establish that you do not come from Russia, ‘Ruski’ is one of many words that means prostitute here, but nowhere else.


People will say that it’s Jermaana that has the reputation for prostitution because it’s a Druze area the Druze have loose morals. This is just untrue, it’s because it has poor and desperate people in it. Besides, the Druze can be really conservative, R’s sisters barely allowed out, and he hopes she’ll get married soon although she’s 18 so she can have the greater freedom that comes with more responsibility. According to the woman who works in the justice department, Douma, a neighbourhood that’s name is used as shorthand for ‘extremely devout and traditional Muslims,’ has the highest rate of sexual abuse anyway.


R warned the other girls that there are some bad people in Jermaana. He thinks I can look after myself, he’s never said anything to me. I think that’s a complement.


* Unlike in Egypt people don’t attempt to sell me hash. Which is not to say it’s not available if you know who to ask. A significant number of language students think the worst that’ll happen is they’ll be deported. I think that A) they’re wrong and B) being deported would not be cool. One of my housemates goes to Turkey to smoke dope. He’s too scared of the mukhaberat to do it hear. A wise man in my opinion.


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.