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

Grand Tour of Jordan: Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba, and More

Sunday, September 18, 2005 | Petra, Jordan (map)

My friend Molly and I, along with two cuddly camels, in Petra.
At midnight last night, the whole group of 27 Americans and one very tired Jordanian chaperone improbably made our triumphant return to Amman after a three-day whirlwind tour of southern Jordan that tested many a nerve, mine included. Despite my fears—and the best efforts of some knuckleheads in the group—the trip turned out to be quite fun. Having my iPod with me sure helped; al-hamdulillah ("thank god") for that.

In three days we managed to see most of what Jordan has to offer, apart from a few northern sites that we'll see later this month. This trip included:

Hiking Wadi Karak

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 | Wadi Karak, Jordan (map)

Green is an exceptionally rare color here in Jordan. Besides Wadi Karak, everywhere else I've seen has been a shade of brown.
Amman continues to disappoint, but things have certainly picked up since this time last week.

Last Friday—the first day of the weekend here—Molly (a friend from my group) and I joined a local hiking club based in Amman for a day hike along one of the local wadis, called Wadi Karak. (In English, wadi translates to something like "canyon", "riverbed", or "valley".)

Very early in the morning, just after sunrise, we met the group in a grocery store parking lot in Amman and drove together past the Dead Sea, which actually looked quite beautiful. For some reason (umm, maybe the name?) I wasn't expecting the Dead Sea to be picturesque, but I'm definitely going to have to go explore it sometime.

Watching a Hurricane Unfold in the Desert

Friday, September 9, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

I don't have any photos yet that capture just how dry Jordan is, so here's me at a dam back in Syria, in a dried up reservoir.
As it turns out, Al Jazeera and other satellite news channels here in the Arab world are actually as disinterested and clueless as the American media at covering events outside their own little pocket of the world.

For the first few days, Hurricane Katrina has pounded the southern United States, particularly New Orleans, Louisiana, and here at the Haddads' house in Amman I've had to follow on BBC—the only station that was covering the hurricane. But the situation back on the Gulf Coast has grown bad enough that now even Al Jazeera and company have caught wind of it, and are broadcasting clips of the flooding and destruction. It's sad to see old and infirm residents suffering—and somewhat less sad to see those who just didn't heed the government warnings as the storm approached.

Ironically, just a few weeks ago I was back in Damascus talking to my Australian friend Julian about the US, and we mentioned New Orleans. I recounted what I remembered from high school Environmental Science class—that much of the city is situated below sea level and protected by a shaky system of levies that won't hold once a big storm eventually hits. And here we are.

Full House, Amman: Settling in at the Haddads'

Wednesday, September 7, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

At left, host brother Laith (Arabic for "Little Lion"); at right, host brother Deeb (Arabic for "Wolf").
Amman is... well, as I wrote in my previous update I'm still trying to withhold judgment for a little while, but there’s no denying that this city is no Damascus. All the total craziness that made Syria interesting is lacking here in Amman—a city that basically just reminds me of a large American suburban area.

Jordanians seem to speak about as much English as in an American suburb, too, which is frustrating. That's certainly going to make learning Arabic more difficult. In Syria, you couldn't help but learn Arabic—it was absolutely necessary for daily life, but I'm not so optimistic about the prospects here.

Earlier this week I moved in with the family I will be living with all semester. Their name is Haddad, and they’re Christian, and live in a huge house with a maid. (A few days back, I called my friend Julian back in Damascus to tell him I missed him and everyone else there already, and made sure to ask him to reassure my Syrian Christian "host mom" Ra’ife that I am safe and sound and in good hands, living with a Christian family. These things matter here in the Middle East!)