Leaving Syria

Sunday, August 21, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Residents, shoppers, and storekeepers mingle one evening on a leafy commercial alley in Damascus's old city.
Over the past two months I have gradually begun to grow accustomed to the rhythms of life in Damascus. Almost subconsciously, I pepper my speech with inshallah's (literally "If God wills it", a somewhat strange phrase they say constantly here, both Christians and Muslims alike, and Jews too, that's sort of like "knock on wood").

I can string together a path through the Old City's alleyways by foot, and know where in the markets to find the best fresh blackberry juice, dates, and qamr-ed-din (قمر الدين)—the all-natural Syrian precursor to the fruit roll-up, a neon orange leathery slab made from apricots. It hasn't rained once in two months so, like the locals, I quench my parched throat from the small metal cup chained to the public fountains outside every mosque. Every day for lunch I buy menayeesh (مناييش), miniature pizzas, from the local carts, and sip juice cocktails (alcohol free, of course) at the juice bar near my
house. I've even grown to like the prickly pear cactus fruit (تين صابور) that has appeared in the last few weeks at carts around town, manned by vendors who wear heavy gloves as they cut away each fruit's thorny shell.

At the same time, my Arabic studies have been progressing quickly. I tried to push myself hard to make the most of my last few weeks. As a result, I've progressed tremendously since my fumbling beginnings two months ago; in my greatest triumph, this week I delivered a 45-minute final presentation entirely in Arabic on the subject of the Crusades in Syria. That history has been a huge element of my time here in the country, where I have read and re-read The Crusades Through Arab Eyes while exploring Crusader castles and visiting the tombs of the great Muslim warriors.

Though these new experiences have been rich and fascinating, I do still miss some things. Besides rain, it's been two months since I've seen a dog, breakfast cereal, a girl in a skirt, somebody moving at faster than a walk, or many other things that seem normal back home. Nine more months to go here in in the Middle East, inshallah.

* * *

I've spent my final days crossing a last few things off my list before my move to Jordan, where I will study for academic year at the University of Jordan in Amman. Yesterday I went with Julian and two friends from my Arabic class to the Noureddine Hammam (حمّام نور الدين). This particular hammam, or public bathhouse, was built in 1155 AD. Our regimen there included a soak in several increasingly sweltering steam rooms and a series of vigorous massages and rubdowns from enormous bear-like men, one of whom managed to coax a cracking noise from every one of my vertebrae.

Last night a number of us congregated for one last evening under the grapevine at Ra'ife's house, drinking ourselves sick on a locally made spirit known only as "Mr. Gin". This morning I didn't feel in any shape to travel, but was due in Amman by evening. In the market, I bought a new bag to load up all of my junk, which has grown significantly. I made an effort to throw out what I didn't need, but decided stubbornly to continue lugging around the snorkel, year's supply of toiletries, and a few other strange things I brought with me from the US. (Unfortunately, in my hung-over state, I somehow managed to get rid of all my papers from this summer's Arabic class—a huge loss that I only realized when I arrived here in Jordan. I'll just have to hope I internalized those two months' worth of learning.)

Throughout all my packing, Mohamed—the t-shirt seller who took me to the mosque with him recently—was calling and calling, and leaving me pleading messages to call him back and see him one last time before leaving for Amman. Clearly he was afraid to lose his "convert", but I was in no mood to indulge him this morning, and hit the road after saying goodbye to Ra'ife, Julian, and my other friends among the summer crop of foreign students.

* * *

At Damascus's depot for southbound buses, I managed to find a Mercedes taxi bound for Amman. I also met the one-legged sailor who haunts the bus depot. Reeking of booze and life on the street, he barraged me with obscenity-laden English from the moment I arrived at the station. "Well, shit, where ya from then? American, eh? Where ya headed? Jordan, eh? Those wankers... pissin'... cocksuckin'... " None of the words belong in the sailor's otherwise mundane sentences. He told me he learned his English during a stint in the British navy, though the language of Shakespeare it is not. I try to ignore him, and eventually he hobbled off on his single crutch to badger a few Scandinavians for money.

Soon after lunchtime, I and the other passengers load our bags into the cramped taxi—the driver and two others in the front seat, and four of us in the back seat—and start our drive to Jordan. After such an amazing summer in Syria, my expectations of the new program and of Jordan in general are not high, but maybe I will somehow be pleasantly surprised.

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