Open-Air Evenings Under the Grapevine

Tuesday, June 28, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Our spot in Ra'ife's courtyard, beside my bedroom
Since moving in to Ra'ife's home ten days ago, I have already begun to develop a routine.

Each evening, after a long day of Arabic classes and sweltering heat, a small group of us walk down the lane to a local falafel shop to pick up sandwiches, then grab several beers on the way back. We sit at the table in Ra'ife's courtyard, eating, bantering, working on our Arabic homework, comparing our lives back home, or, more commonly, just digesting our days here in Damascus.

There are a few regulars each evening. I get along quite well with Julian, a cheeky 20-something from Australia who's also studying at Damascus University. Marion, the ever mellow German, is living here for a few months while working at the Goethe Institute—Germany's cultural center here in Damascus. Christina, also German, came to Damascus to work on her Arabic, but is in fact mostly just learning filthy English curses and idioms from Julian and me.

Ra'ife leaves her mother upstairs some evenings to hang out with us in the courtyard, where she chats and chain smokes. As for the others in the house, though, they tend to stick to themselves. There's the shy, giggly French girl; the bug-eyed Iranian medical doctor who definitely thinks I'm here to spy on him; and the neurotic Iranian-American drama queen nobody can stand.

Our brew of choice during these evenings is Barada. At US$0.50 a liter, it would be crazy to choose anything else, even if it is named for the foul-smelling, polluted Barada River that flows through the city. Because we are in Bab Tuma, the Christian quarter, picking up beer at any of the little neighborhood general stores is easy.

By the time we get ready to retire to our rooms, the city is quiet, with the notable exception of the alley cats, whose coital yelping often echoes over the rooftops. A few days ago, Ra'ife was sitting with us when the sound of fornicating felines broke the night's calm. Ever the prim and proper Catholic, Ra'ife immediately said, "اسمعو! القطط يتزوّجو." ("Listen! The cats are getting married.") Even she couldn’t help laughing.

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