Amman: McArabia the Beautiful

Tuesday, August 23, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

After Damascus, Amman looks disappointingly American, but I'm hoping there's more to discover under the surface.
Well, I'm here. The big Mercedes taxi got me to Amman and I've found my way to the Rama Hotel near Amman's 7th Circle to meet up with my group of 27 fellow American college students, with whom I'll be spending the next four months or so studying Arabic and more here.

No problems so far, other than the wonderful stomach/digestive tract issues that have been dogging me for the past week. Nothing I can't handle though, and if that's all I have to deal with I figure I'm doing ok.

On the positive side, the grumblings in my abdomen give me something to think about as my orientation drags on. It's basically a cut-and-dry, black-and-white version of everything I've learned about Arab culture over the past two months in Damascus. The discussions are not exactly interesting—or entirely accurate, in my opinion. I'm glad I got the chance to learn it all the hard

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

Joyful Welcomes and Tearful Worship: A Day of Prayer with Damascus's Muslims

Friday, August 19, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

This photo of the emotional morning prayer ceremony was one of the most careful and discrete that I have ever snapped.
We saw Mohamed's handiwork long before we met him.

At the university one day last month, several fellow students showed up wearing brightly colored t-shirts with gimmicky Arabic signs screen-printed on their fronts: "Fady Roumana's pizza", "Syria forever", or the ubiquitous "No Parking, under penalty of towing" sign that we easily recognized from the city streets. In a country whose young people are obsessed with imitating our styles—and wouldn't be caught dead in a t-shirt with anything other than an English-language slogan on it—someone had finally discovered the perfect souvenir.

After a little asking around, Julian and I tracked the t-shirts back to a small screen-printing booth at the very end of the Souq Medhat Pasha. A trio of enterprising local brothers own and operate the shop, which mostly sells cheap sweatsuits and soccer outfits for kids. But last month they happened

An Evening with the Hakawati

Tuesday, August 16, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

The last of the hakawatis, Abu Shadi, spins his tales at al-Nawfara coffeehouse as locals listen closely.
As my remaining days in Damascus wane, I'm trying to make sure I see as much as possible of what the city has to offer. So yesterday evening Julian and I walked through the Old City's alleyways to al-Nawfara coffeehouse, a famous cafe behind the Ummayad Mosque. Al-Nawfara is known as the last site in Syria where a hakawati (الحكواتي) holds court. The hakawati, or traditional storyteller, carries in his mind centuries of folk tales and fables dating from well before the establishment of Islam in Syria over a millennium ago.

Abu Shadi (أبو شادي) is the current hakawati, and the last of his kind. Each evening, he sits in a throne-like chair at the center of al-Nawfara's halogen-lit inner room, recounting tales about the Rashidun Caliphs, the Thousand and One Nights, or the glorious victories of the Sultan Baybars, and more. The pre-Islamic saga of Antar and Abla is also a favorite, and one he recounted on this

Al-Ma'arra and the Dead Cities

Monday, August 15, 2005 | Ma'arrat al-Numan, Syria (map)

Self portrait in Serjilla, under a sun so hot that you can't even feel the sweat escaping your pores.
Always delightful Hama was my base again this weekend for an exploration of The Dead Cities. My guidebook describes these ancient settlements, which are scattered among the hills west of the Hama-Aleppo highway, as "a series of ancient ghost towns."

The jumping off point for the Dead Cities is the small town of al-Ma'arra (معرة النعمان), best known as the home of the blind poet, philosopher, and scholar Abu al-'Ala al-Ma'arri (أبو العلاء المعري). Born in the 10th century, in his day Al-Ma'arri earned a reputation as an infamous heretic thanks to his critiques of Islam and religion in general. (He once wrote, "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.") Surprisingly, even if al-Ma'arri is maligned by modern religious scholars throughout the Muslim world, he is revered in his hometown as a local hero. A bronze bust of him stands in the center of town.

Walk Like A Syrian

Thursday, August 11, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Nice kicks.
This week I picked up some great new sandals in Damascus's new town. They're just one of many awesome souvenirs I have splurged on here in the souqs, where everything is relatively cheap and the styles are all very different from back home. I also have a small new camel-hair carpet from Turkmenistan that I hope to lug back home next year, inshallah.

More Castles, en Route to the Syrian Riviera

Monday, August 8, 2005 | Latakia, Syria (map)

Self portrait while exploring Salah ad-Din castle (قلعة صلاح الدين)
I'm back from another somewhat fun weekend out and about. It wasn't quite as exciting as last weekend in Hama, where the people were much warmer and friendlier, but it was good nonetheless.

Traveling with a friend from Arabic class, Cristin, I saw Salah ad-Din and Marqab castles, supposedly Syria's second and third best behind the Crac des Chevaliers. From Marqab, an imposing fortress built entirely of black basalt rock, you can see the Mediterranean. Salah ad-Din was even more spectacular, perched on a ridge in the middle of a long valley, covered in trees and vegetation. (My first thought? Wow, the color green! We haven't seen that in a while in brown, dusty Damascus.) In the morning light, the sight was even more beautiful. Salah ad-Din also sports one of the most impressive castle entrances I've seen—the Crusaders carved a chasm from solid rock to separate their fortress from the nearby cliffside, leaving just a single pillar of rock upon

Progress in Arabic, Despite Occasional "Stolen Camels"

Saturday, August 6, 2005 | Damascus, Syria (map)

Minefield separating the Israeli and Syrian Golan Heights: some vocabulary words are more important to memorize than others.
Since my last update on the subject of Arabic, things have really picked up here.

My class is going well now, and I really feel like I'm learning quickly. When I arrived two months ago, I could barely stutter out a sentence, but a week ago I wrote a small essay on possible solutions for global terrorism, and give a forty-five minute presentation on the Crusades in Syria. Compared to the other students in my class, I seem to have a much more solid foundation in Arabic grammar and word construction. (Thanks yet again to Professor Nydell; Georgetown's Arabic department was definitely right to spend so much time drilling the basics of the tri-consonant roots into our heads.)

The local dialect, 'ammiya (اللغة العامية) continues to be frustrating, but I'm slowly picking up snippets. (Last weekend in Hama nobody spoke any classical Arabic!) At this early stage, I think it makes more sense to put the majority of my efforts toward Modern Standard Arabic (اللغة الفصحى) anyway.

Hama Weekend, Part 4: The Former-Yugoslavians

Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Hamah, Syria (map)

New friends, exploring Qasr ibn Wardan in the desert east of Hama
After a late afternoon nap on the hotel rooftop, I tried to chat with a Jordanian man who was staying there. His Arabic had a different sound, that much was noticeable. He didn't have much information to offer me, though, so I still don't know quite what to expect for the next phase of my adventures.

Next, I met a few fellow guests on the roof—Staša, her brother Jure, and their friend Matjaz—three Slovenian 20-somethings backpacking through Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They were friendly, and spoke excellent English, so I joined them for dinner at a nearby kebab stand, then we picked up some beers and headed to the town's central park, straddling the Orontes.

There, we met a few old Syrian men out for their evening stroll, and chatted with them about life, politics, religion. The most talkative one kept drilling home his message: "We are all sons of

Hama Weekend, Part 3: Assassins and Waterwheels

Tuesday, August 2, 2005 | Hamah, Syria (map)

The waterwheels of Hama are the local kids' favorite means of summertime entertainment.
The mosque's call at dawn failed to wake me Saturday morning, but the sun finally did the job a few hours later. To take advantage of the night's cool air, I had slept on the hotel roof, where bare mattresses were offered under a canvas awning.

My destination this morning was Musyaf (مصيف), the famed castle of the Assassins, an obscure branch of Nizari Isma'ili Shi'ites who developed special techniques of killing during their heyday in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that their leaders employed not only extreme training techniques, but also hashish (الحشي), hence their name "al-Hashashiyyin", adapted in English to "assassins". It was said the drug kept the killers loyal, if not completely dependent on their leader's supply.

Whatever their secrets, the Assassins were highly effective, taking down a number of prominent

Hama Weekend, Part 2: Hospitable Friends

Monday, August 1, 2005 | Hamah, Syria (map)

'Arif poses in my sunglasses, beside his gang at Hama's fruit market.
I hopped off the bus late that afternoon in Hama and set out to find some food, but didn't get far. Across the street from the bus station, as I made my way past a large produce market, I was intercepted by an excited middle-aged fruit seller, who introduced himself as 'Arif. He sported a well-trimmed mustache, and wore a grey dishdasha robe like many of his friends, to whom he introduced me. Soon, I was being fed free samples of every fruit they could find in the market, from peaches to tangerines to avocados to melons to apricots.

At first I was a bit confused—would I have to pay for all this fruit? But 'Arif and his gang reassured me that they were just happy to have a new friend. At their urging, I did my best to tell them about myself, and to follow their replies, though my knowledge of the Syrian 'ammiyya dialect is limited. Soon they knew all about me, had stuffed me full of fruit, and were urging me to join them in songs