How to Live and Study Arabic Abroad in Damascus: the Scoop on Syria, plus Practical Info for Students

Sunday, September 25, 2005 | Dimashq, Syria (map)

Arabic is even more beautiful when you know what it means.
Interest in Syria as a destination for tourists and Arabic students continues to grow—for good reason. Having just finished a summer in Syria, I thought it might be useful to share some of what I have learned, to help others visit the country too.

Despite the bad press it gets in the US, Syria is an amazing place—both as a travel destination, a place to really delve into the full diversity of Middle Eastern culture, and of course as a site for Arabic study. If you have the chance, do not hesitate to go.

I have just recently finished the two-month Summer Arabic Program at Damascus University, and learned a tremendous amount of Arabic in the process. The University stresses teaching Arabic without recourse to English—everything in the classroom is explained in Arabic, from the earliest levels onward. While this was certainly a difficult adjustment at first (and doubtless could appear
even more intimidating for beginning students) it makes a significant positive difference. Hearing Arabic constantly for four hours a day in class was an invaluable way to advance my language skills—and my Arabic abilities grew exponentially each week as a result.

Additionally, perhaps Syria's greatest strength as a language study site is that so few people there speak English. Because of its limited economic ties with the West and small number of tourists in comparison to Lebanon or Jordan, Syria is not a multilingual country like its neighbors. I was inundated with Arabic from the beginning, and although the many friendly locals often tried to speak English with me, almost all of them quickly reached their limits after "hello" and "how are you?" In my opinion this is not a cause for concern for anyone who feels that his or her Arabic skills are not ready to handle such an intense immersion situation. I went to Syria this summer after having taken Level-I Arabic at Georgetown with a non-native speaker as my professor and, though I had many funny miscommunications with locals throughout my time, never encountered serious difficulties as a result of the language barrier.

Do It Yourself

Many European, Australian and South Asian students come to Damascus every summer, so a support network exists to help foreign students locate housing, get around and register for their courses. Buying a plane ticket to Damascus with the plan of simply showing up at the University and signing up for one of their one-month courses on the spot is, therefore, not a crazy idea at all. On the contrary, it is perfectly manageable, even for someone with limited language skills, and is in fact far cheaper than the more hands-on, supportive Summer Program (which gears its services—and prices—toward American college students, drawing most of the program members from Ohio State University).

Another program in the city is the highly renowned IFEAD (L'Institut Français d'Études Arabes en Damas—a.k.a. the French Institute). The IFEAD also teaches its rigorous courses entirely in Arabic, so not knowing French will not be an impediment to enrolling or taking the course there. This program, though on the more expensive side, is becoming very popular due to its good reputation, and therefore registration is required perhaps as far as six months in advance. People I met in this program were very satisfied with it, and always seemed busy with lots of Arabic homework during their stay.

There are of course the two programs at Damascus University. The additional services offered by the American Summer Program (this summer's cost: US$2,000)—airport pick-up and drop-off, assistance in finding housing, assistance in locating language study partners, and organization of two weekend trips—were not at all worth the extra US$1,600 price difference between that program and the university's regular course. The smaller class sizes were certainly a plus, but the rest seemed largely unnecessary. The other program is one typically one month long, with signup running for two days prior to the course's beginning, and this past summer cost US$200 per month. Both courses stress developing Arabic skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Outside tutors are available for a relatively cheap cost.

The British Council also runs a program in Damascus, as do (sometimes) the Spanish and German cultural centers. The Dutch Cultural Center as well as several others also have colloquial courses that one can sign up for on location.

Housing and Cost of Living

As for housing, since most students only come for a month or two in the summer, renting an apartment for such a short time is not really an option. However, in Bab Tuma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, owners of the large old-style Arab houses have developed quite a business lodging the many visiting summer students, and rent many rooms to them. Because of increasing demand every year, prices this summer were about US$125 per month for a decent room, and I would expect them to rise by next summer. Interested students are welcome to contact me for information; the house I stayed in was far cleaner, the landlady far nicer, and the amount of Arabic spoken far greater than in any other house I visited in the neighborhood, and I will be happy to put anyone who's interested in touch with that owner.

One of Syria's greatest strengths is also its cultural heritage. Damascus and Aleppo, possibly the world's longest continually inhabited cities, are full of relics from throughout human history, as is the rest of the country. I highly recommend traveling on weekends, as Syria's sites are dirt-cheap to enter and almost always devoid of other tourists, despite their amazing quality, as a result of the country's unsavory (and completely undeserved) international reputation.

Travel and living in Syria is also very cheap. To put it in perspective, I traveled one weekend to the charming city of Hama, paying for a round-trip bus fare, two nights in a hostel, food throughout the trip, and several bus trips outside the city to visit nearby ruins and ended up back in Damascus after two-and-a-half days having spent about US$15. On the weekdays, I usually bought dinner near my house for about US$0.80 each night. So don't worry too much when you have to shell out US$100 for the visa at the Syrian Embassy in Washington before you leave – it's well worth it.

Security and Hospitality

Also, the country is probably the safest one to visit in the Middle East today. While the State Department may like to talk bad about Syria for its undemocratic ways (and rightly so), the ruling regime's dictatorial style has positive implications for foreign visitors. Thanks to the ever-present secret police, or mukhabarrat, I wasnit really able to talk much local politics while in Syria, but the presence of those police also meant I didn't need to fear for my personal safety like I do when back home in DC. Unlike in Georgetown, women need not feel unsafe walking around Damascus alone, even late at night. This is the reason that a State Department Travel Safety Warning exists for neighboring Lebanon but not for Syria.

The Syrians themselves were for me among the most enjoyable aspects of the country. Their outgoing, friendly nature (coupled with a general inability to speak much English) made them great people to learn Arabic from, and their awareness of international affairs and the history of their region made for very stimulating conversation. Unfortunately, the traditional selfless Arab hospitality initially appeared to have largely disappeared from much of Damascus thanks to the tourist trade, but once I got to know local Damascenes they quickly overwhelmed me with their generosity. Outside of the capital it took even less prompting—I grew used to exchanging several words with a person on the street and then being invited with utter sincerity to dinner that night. Everywhere I went, people were amazed to meet a foreigner working on learning Arabic, and showered me with gratitude for my interest in their language and culture.

Syria isn't perfect, of course. As is the case anywhere, a small number of people are willing to take advantage of tourists' naiveté. The tremendous bureaucratic inefficiencies which exist there also create great hassle at times as well. But with a good sense of humor, ample patience, and some information before you leave, it's easy to have a tremendously rewarding time studying in Syria, and drastically improve one's Arabic skills in the process.

Though I am currently studying in Jordan for the year (and wishing I was still back in Syria), I check my e-mail regularly, and will be happy to talk with anyone interested in studying in Damascus. Please don't hesitate to contact me.

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