My other halooyaat are testicles

Up at 0715, I go for a shower and find a random Arab, presumably another of my Syrian housemate’s friends, trainwrecked fully-clothed on a bed in one of the vacant upstairs rooms across from it. Standard. Taxi to university in a Soviet-made car which must  have been at least thirty years old and had no suspension (or much else) to speak of. I pay the driver my fare of 40p and, as I leave, he says in broken English ‘mayy carr naiss, yess?’.

Returning after class, I sit down in the common area of my house with my housemate with some cheesy pastries purchased nearby and a door opens from another vacant room and another random Arab walks out. All he can muster is a gravelly baritone ‘ahlan’ before he simply lets himself out. Also standard.

Going to the Maronite church this evening, the formal Arabic of religious devotion proved as wonderfully inaccessible as ever. I ran into the bishop outside afterwards and sat down with him for green tea. We were soon joined by a few of the other priests and had a conversation in Arabic and French about the state of employment in Syria, the age of the site of the church  in which we had just worshipped (the foundations of a previous church were laid in the sixth century, making it the oldest site extant in Syria) and Margaret Thatcher’s political policies, amongst other things.

On the way back I was greeted randomly by a passing man who talked with me about my trip to the northern city of Lattakia, his home, which I visited among others last week. I bade him goodbye as I went for a shwarma, a wrap of shaved goat meat with lemon mayonnaise. Heading back from the fast food stall to my house, I ran into a professional Kurdish musician who invited me into his house for sweet mint tea and bizarre, mournful Kurdish music played on a theorbo-like instrument, after which he discussed that the modern attitude towards Jews in Syria dismays him, as he lived in the Jewish Quarter with a Jewish man for ten years until recently when he passed away.

Then I came back home and had what was written of my essay/dissertation on the fall of the Roman Republic critiqued by a housemate (I’ve never written a 3000-word uni essay even in English before…).

Just another day.  Every one has the potential to surprise, awe and downright confuse. That’s the thing with such an ancient and diverse country.

Last week was a holiday for ”Eed al-FiTr, the festival for the end of RamaDaan (thank fuck…), so I went travelling with some peeps around northern Syria. The photos are amazing, and as soon as I see them up they will be shamelessly poached for this blog (with due credit given. Obviously).

Ginger Syrians, or ‘Gyrians’ as we know them (affectionately) are not simply a curiosity in Aleppo, but a phenomenon. There are around five million Kurds in Syria by some estimates, and these men are only the most obvious of them. They’re your average greasy, mustachioed Syrians except… ginger. It’s fucking bizarre, let me tell you.

Something lost in translation from Arabic to English is the drinking of alcohol. Racist westerners assume that all Arabs are fanatical Muslims wearing Sikh-style turbans filled with explosives bent on carnage with no fun allowed afterwards. It goes largely without saying that this is completely false. Nevertheless, I did assume when I arrived that, just like in Britain, drinking in public and open public drunkenness would have a certain traditional social stigma assigned to them.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a bit of Aleppo and found out that this isn’t the case at all, and, if anything, the opposite can be true. Trying to arrange a car for the day after, at just before three in the afternoon two of us were sitting outside a hotel marvelling at the most bizarre scene I have yet beheld in all my days.

A group of around thirty men, including two or three Gyrians, were trying to arrange taxis (apparently), but really just causing complete chaos on a stretch of pavement in the square, to some moderately distant location on the outskirts of the city. All seemed to be varyingly intoxicated, but one man was absolutely, ridiculously battered. Honestly probably the drunkest I have ever seen anyone (or maybe he’s just Syrian). He was shouting incoherently, spitting, trying to drink more lager, attempting to assault taxi drivers and generally falling all over the place and making a complete tit of himself. Two of his slightly better-off friends were trying to hold him back. At one point, he flailed his arms all over the place and exclaimed something about his friend’s blood and passed out (literally in a second) onto the bonnet of a taxi with a sickening thud. In an attempt to rid himself of this menace, the driver started to reverse away, only to reveal that rather than the Arabic equivalent of  ‘WARNING, VEHICLE REVERSING!’ his rear bumper played a gobsmackingly hilarious monophonic rendition of ‘It’s a Small World After All’, complete with a drumbeat which sounded more like an ocean with something really wrong with it. With that going on, the drunkard fell from the front of the taxi to the ground, rolled around a bit in either agony or ecstasy or probably both in equal measure before being picked back up by his friends, being scolded by them and then continuing to make a (most pricelessly humourous) scene, amongst all the general havoc that continued to go on around.

Meanwhile, a group of slightly older men in maybe their early thirties stood across the street drinking Heineken and smoking cheap Syrian cigarettes. Seeing our jaws wide, one explained to us that the offending gentleman had been married earlier that day and that they were trying to go to a site near the airport where they would consume inordinately excessive amounts of ”araQ (the Arab equivalent of absinthe) and then fight each other frenziedly using half-sharpened daggers. They asked if we would join them, and we politely responded that we would wait for our friends inside the hotel. They came out a few minutes later and we managed to head for the aswaaQ and the citadel, escaping certain death.

‘What happens in Syria…’

‘Practise your I”raab, you bitch!’

I could bore you with a sort of diary entry detailing every little thing I have done since getting here, but it’s probably better to write about my more interesting and poignant experiences so far.

Waking up on my first morning at the arsecrack of dawn and looking out of my hotel window was quite something. Across from me was this decades-old, very unstable and abandoned building which looked to have been of some standing during the French occupation or maybe even earlier. Even though it looked like it could collapse any minute, people had set up various stalls in front of it selling the usual middle eastern fare of pirate DVDs, nuts, blackcurrant juice that will be exactly the same in appearance when you shit it out, cheap cigarettes, dodgy-looking fruit and so on, and drivers careened across the road in front with seemingly no care and attention, making angry faces at anyone who’d pay attention and using their horns as much as possible.

Something which struck me immediately was the mixed friendliness and greed of locals. One man I passed spoke to me in French and wished me a pleasant stay for no clear reason other than niceness, yet the first several taxi drivers I asked to take me to the University tried to charge 200 lire (about £2.75, or six times what the price should be), so obviously I told them to fuck off. The notion that there can be a fixed price for practically anything more expensive than a cup of Turkish coffee is alien, but my arrogant haggling technique is working fairly well so far. I might go to a stall in the ancient covered al-Hamadiyya market and want to buy a pack of two pillows, and be offered the outrageously extortionate price of 1200 lire. Rather than slowly work the vendor down to a reasonable price and then buy after maybe five minutes like anyone else, I’ll simply contort my expression into one of complete contempt, make a standard derisive noise, offer 150 and then walk off slowly when he isn’t happy. He’ll probably shout ‘300! 300!’ after me, and then I’ll come back and the deal will be done at 250. If not, he’ll just have to find some other mug to peddle his shit to, won’t he.

Another thing I notice prominently is that here, unlike in the near east of Thessaly and Thrace or (I imagine) the rest of Turkey, without at least a rudimentary knowledge of spoken and written Arabic it would be practically impossible to do anything meaningful except walk around the old city. In Thessaloniki it’s easy just to point to things you want and throw in the occasional Greek pleasantry, but here it’s funny to see tourists trying that and bus drivers etc. simply wondering what the fuck is wrong with them.

Taxi journeys are normally quite fun because you can just sit back and watch people doing things in their typically inefficient Syrian way (I still think the English word ‘organisation’ loses something in translation here…), feel glad that you’ll never have to drive here and listen to the normally very good music on the radio. Traditional and modern Arab music are much closer in their forms than their western counterparts, which makes for interesting listening. There seems to be a fairly small number of modern classic artists whom everyone seems to know and whose tunes are played fairly consistently, generally because despite being able to put together a catchy rhythm like, say, Lady Gaga, their songs also have artistic merit and are worthy of critical analysis, unlike Lady Gaga. Arab musicians use what sound to us like typical eastern timings and key signatures to stir more of an emotional response as well as more varied themes in tonality and in the message and idea of the song than customary western pop. Modern Arab music is also prone to using similar instruments to its classical counterpart, although the influence of that western pop is spreading amongst younger and hipper artists.

Just as ‘happy’ is a good catch-all term to describe Baroque music generally, ‘contemplative’ is a good one here. When I hear a happy song on the radio, I get the impression that the obviously Arab combination of descending scales which are continually updated and developed with an opposed yet strangely concurrent high tenor voice does more to tell the story of why the singer’s happy than simply to convey the extent of his happiness. This is a microcosm of something that can be difficult for a foreigner to understand, namely the intense relationship between the historical and the contemporary in the Arab World, indeed how the Arab always seems to want to reply with ‘yeah, but why did that happen?’.

I try to pride myself on good organisation, timekeeping and personal discipline. But I feel slightly guilty here when my ‘get things done’ attitude shines out. Before I turned my computer on this evening, I felt really happy that just sitting in a café sipping my gritty, syrupy coffee constituted a legitimate activity. Inactivity wherever possible is a way of life here, and I suppose I have an ‘inner Arab’, if you will, that just loves sleeping in until two o’clock.

The Scottish bastard in Damascus

Sounds like a Rossini opera gone a bit wrong, no?

I promised a blog, and I also promised great pictures of the city, but I managed to get my phone stolen yesterday, so sadly no piccies just yet. More on that later.

My fellow Bantermarket users will know me well, but for the benefit of others a brief description of my intent is in order. I’m a third-year student of Arabic and Latin, and St Andrews has the option in this semester of studying abroad with Arabic, taking some people to Damascus University and a few to the American University, Cairo.

Studying abroad in Syria for fourteen weeks sounds like a big change of pace, especially for someone who has never been outside Europe before. But why write a blog? Well, it’s partially a diary for me, so I can look back on this time in the future and remember ‘oh yeah, that was the bomb’ (something I especially love saying here when I see tourists) etc., partially a way of structuring my ideas about this fresh and interesting environment in which I find myself and partially a sort of catalogue of good and bad experiences which the reader can seek out and avoid respectively. I will chat shit. Often. If you read enough into it, I may make sense.

I’m one of the clichéd multitude as I really ‘found myself’ in sixth year. Many of my fellow old Aloysians will remember vividly the distinctly substandard teaching, mediocre facilities, multitudinous wankers and architecture fit to induce ocular cancer, but none of these are what I’m talking about. We also remember Lindisfarne, walking barefoot across the sands to Holy Island in contemplation, the Kairos and third year retreats some of us led, but most of all we remember the chaplains, and their inspiration.

Somewhere along the way I lost myself and can’t quite find me again. So something I realised after thinking that study abroad would be great for my Arabic was that coming to appreciate first-hand another culture will help me understand my own – and myself – much better. This blog, in its own way, is an invitation to trust, a ‘wish you were here’, letting the reader know how I’m doing things and how I represent the homeland abroad (probably not very well).

Nobody visits a new country – in this case a new continent – without being at least a little presumptuous. I came here armed (or perhaps disarmed?) with all of my various beliefs and preconceived notions, results of my own culture and upbringing. My growing fascination with Syria represents an already growing understanding of myself and how I relate to the world.

There’s something very bipolar about Damascus. I’m in two minds about practically everything, for example my neighbourhood. This evening I climbed up onto the roof of my old-style Syrian house and could see out all the way to the Umayyid Mosque in the centre of the old city, and was struck by the houses I saw. And how shit they looked from up there. Compared with the wonderful street level of charming winding alleys, wizened old men mumbling incoherently and noisy children, everything was so silent and… shit. Except for the singing of the muezzin from the Mosque. As I contemplated how and why someone could live in such a place as mine for their whole life, the call to prayer started suddenly, and it reminded me – even though I neither believe the words he sings to be true or fully understand them – that during our time of difficulty as well as plenty, God is with us, sustaining us both silently and with all the rigour of life. Then my longed-for mystic moment was cut short by the tens of other recitations from smaller houses of worship and everything suddenly sounded more like an octogenarian (yes!, I’m a journalist fanny now!) boffing a large mammal. But still, that’s what I’m here for firstly. Mystic moments. Not boffing large mammals.

Very profound, Starky, yes…

Status Report

It has been a long while since the blogs were last updated. My excuse is that things have been busy with the rest of the site. Things have progressed nicely and at the time of writing the forum is up to 1777 posts, 69 of which are in the funny pictures thread. This is not to mention the AMPS, SMR and Bantermarket archives we maintain in vintage. The site has seen a greater level of interactivity and Web2.0-ness than ever before in BM history. We have reinstated all the services seen on the old sites – media, blogs, the forum, the bantionary but we’ve also added an online collaborative office suite and a collaborative project management system. We hope to use the office suite for, among other things, the Bantermarket Times. The project management software brings us in line with current accepted best practices for software development.

Our community has remained very active over the years, despite the geographical separation and conflicting demands on our time. I’m mainly writing because Starky has reminded me about our sorely neglected blogs. Starky is currently in Syria and plans to blog his experience. It really sounds like one to catch.

This is your status report/warm up act signing off, cheers everyone