Finding a New Home in Bab Tuma

Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

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
Nicholas in every imaginable dimension, we chatted about recent political developments in the region. When I mentioned Israel, Nicholas shushed me abruptly, saving me from having to learn at least one lesson the hard way. To the ears of an average Syrian on the street, he explained, a few foreigners talking in English was nothing more than gibberish. But once that unmistakable word—"Israel"—was dropped, the conversation had new meaning, for who else besides a spy in their midst would utter it? Since that night, Israel became "the land down under", "the neighbors down south", or any other of the many code words passed with a wink among expats here.

On my second day in the country, Nicholas was the one who recommended I look for a room in the home of Ra'ife Hanoun, a kind middle-aged woman who lived in the heart of Bab Tuma (باب توما), the Christian quarter of Damascus' Old City. Ra'ife was unmarried, but along with her elderly mother, she occupied the upper floor of a traditional Damascene house—which looks nothing like what we think of when we think of a house in the US. It is built around an open-air courtyard, partially shaded by a sprawling grapevine. A constantly rotating gaggle of renters—almost all foreign students—live in the lower rooms around the courtyard.

Ra'ife didn't even give me a chance to inquire about available rooms before urging Nicholas and me to join a circle of boarders around a low table heaped with apricots, or mishmish (مشمش) as they're known in Arabic. Along with the other students, I was put to work, knife in hand, pitting and mashing the fruits into a central bowl. In exchange for our help, I learned, Ra'ife had offered us a jar each of the apricot preserves that would be finished curing in a month's time. Not a bad deal, considering that Ra'ife worked with us, joking and laughing at our pidgin Arabic and generally not caring that we ate as many apricots as we mashed.

I moved in the next day.

Update: For info on how to find your own accommodation and language program in the Old City of Damascus, please see "How to Live and Study Arabic Abroad in Damascus: the Scoop on Syria, plus Practical Info for Students".

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