Getting to Know Old Damascus

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

The Souq al-Hamidiyeh, one of the most iconic of Damascus's many sites
In every way, Damascus could not be less like home, but despite my anxiety during the trip here and first several hours in the city, I have come to really enjoy it, and am adapting to the new climate, schedule, political atmosphere, and people here.

Damascus's Old City certainly does not want for sights to explore. In fact, I am quickly learning why Ibn Battuta raved for page after page about the city after his travels first brought him here in 1362:
"Damascus surpasses all other cities in beauty, and no description, however full, can do justice to its charms.... All strangers among them are handsomely treated, and care is taken that they are not forced to any action that might injure their self-respect."
Giddy with the joy of wandering the city, he could hardly spit out fast enough his descriptions of the many marvels he encountered: the markets, public fountains, religious sites, the gushing hospitality

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.

Nothing in Life is Free, but Life in Damascus Comes Close

Monday, June 27, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Commercial Bank of Syria and a classic car (As with Cuba, Syria's isolation from the rest of the world has at least one benefit.)
A few days ago, I walked to an ATM in the morning before class to withdraw some cash. I had to pay Ra'ife my rent, which covers my small room with a bed, desk, and dresser, as well as the use of the kitchen, shower, and laundry machine.

For my small room, the monthly rate is 6,000 Syrian lira (US$120), though Ra'ife charges up to 7,000 lira (US$140) for the larger rooms. Once I had also paid her for providing me with lunch each day, my total came to about US$125.

Last night for dinner, I walked with Julian, one of the other students who lives with Ra'ife, to a nearby foul (فول, pronounced like "fool") stand. Foul is a Syrian staple dish of spiced, stewed fava beans, served with bread and vegetables. Julian confirmed that my bill of US$0.80 for the dinner was on the cheap side, even for Damascus, but also said that a fancy dinner out in the nicest

Aboard the "Ship of the Desert" in Palmyra

Sunday, June 26, 2005 | Palmyra, Syria (map)

Taking a test drive with a friend.
On Friday the University faculty organized a day trip for the students in my program to visit Palmyra, in the heart of Syria's barren eastern desert, halfway between Damascus and the Euphrates River.

Known locally as Tadmur (تدمر), the city is over 4,000 years old, and at one time served as the Roman empire's greatest eastern stronghold. In addition to acting as the first line of defense against Persia's armies, Palmyra flourished as a trading post, situated as it is on the intersection of several major caravan routes.

What remains of the once lavish city is still impressive. In all directions rise columns, temples, and other stone structures, while many more lay tumbled across the sun-baked earth. I bought a traditional red and white checkered kuffiyeh (كفيّة) to shield myself from the heat, but the sun still

Words Cannot Express the Frustrations of Arabic

Thursday, June 23, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Boshra in our classroom at Damascus University.
Here in Damascus, I am struggling quite a lot with my Arabic, much of which I forgot since classes ended at Georgetown back in early May. My professor there, Dr. Margaret Nydell, offered me a very brief list of basic Syrian colloquial Arabic phrases that has proven invaluable in communicating here.

My third day of Arabic classes at Damascus University has just ended. I'm in Level II of the university's system (in a program organized by Ohio State University) and think it's a decent fit, though challenging. Our teacher, Boshra, hasn't said more than four or five English words in the past three hours. Back at the house, I also spend nearly all my time listening to Arabic. I and the other students who rent rooms mostly hang out and try to chat with Ra'ife, who speaks only Arabic. She is very patient and helpful in correcting our grammar and pronunciation, as well as developing our vocabulary (by far my biggest weakness at the moment, it seems). Around town, English

Finding a New Home in Bab Tuma

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Ra'ife, at right, enjoying some delicious local watermelon with her mother on the shaded balcony that is their living room.
From the start, Nicholas has been my savior in Damascus. A friend of a teacher of mine, Nicholas was studying in Syria on a Fulbright grant, and I had contacted him before I left. He agreed to meet me at my hotel and show me around during my first evening in the country.

He led a dizzying tour of the Old City, including what seemed like a mad, swerving dash through the main market—Souq al-Hamidiyyeh (سوق الحمدية). I ran to keep up with Nicholas, and several times pressed myself against crumbling walls as cars sped through the narrow passages, inches from my toes. The shock of the colors and smells was too much to digest; I couldn't even think of trying to process the Arabic words flying around me.

In the bustling souq, we ducked into a doorway and climbed a staircase to a small tailor's shop overlooking the market—one of several stops for errands along our tour. While the tailor measured

Destination: Damascus

Monday, June 20, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

First views of Damascus's new city.
On Friday, I left America behind via a one-way ticket to Damascus, Syria. For the next year, I'll be living, traveling, and studying Arabic in the Middle East.

When my flight arrived in Damascus Saturday afternoon, the first thing I noticed was the heat. With almost no humidity, the dusty air parched my nostrils and mouth before I had even left the airport. The Syrian customs officials stared blankly at my passport for long intervals, and performed several half-assed searches of my bags before releasing me to the cacophony of the airport's public hall. Outside, the dust hung like fine powder, tinting the arid landscape like an omnipresent golden filter.

I clambered into an ancient Mercedes taxi, and sped off toward the city center. The driver was eager to make conversation over the clamoring Arabic pop music. Within minutes of my arrival in