Category Archives: Damascus

Gone… some things forgotten

(continued from last post)

It was then that I got a bit ambitious. I keep wanting to cross the next hill, the next hill, the next hill, which served to demostrate the aforementioned emptiness of the place, occasionally punctuated by disused tracks and huts, as well as single trees or small groups of them. Reaching the highest peak in the area, I was tempted to burst into Mighty Boosh-style crimp, but running low on water and having nobody to provide a smattering of polite/disturbed laughter I decided that was somewhat pointless.


‘lost in the blinding light of the deseeeeeeeeeeeeert’ doesn’t quite work as well…

Coming back towards the monastery from there, I noticed some movement across a ridge to my left, and my brain must have thought something along the lines of ‘oh, let’s see what that is, because obviously nothing could conceivably go wrong in that scenario’. Sure enough, I crossed the ridge and was faced with this massive, slavering, enraged wolf, and the perfectly cloudless sky behind it suddenly read تباً. Fortunately a bit of running like a lunatic before he could howl for his pure young team saw me alright.


It doesn’t look like much for that distance, but I’m telling you it was at least this big (imagine me holding my arms very far apart)

His friends turned out to be more like massive, slavering, enraged feral dogs than wolves per se. Maybe Syria is a bit like that. If you’re stupid, you get chased by wolves. This is my thought for the day.

Anyway, that’s that. Four months in the Levant… I’ve been back just about two months now, mainly happily. I do sometimes miss Syria’s simplicity and honesty, but then it had its disadvantages by the barrel as well.

Bad times? We can certainly say I’d love to forget being mugged in Bab Tuma, having my camera stolen and many of the events in the week before half-term. And we will say that.

But I’d say what I loved most about my time abroad was discovering things for myself. I’d heard at least a little about practically every area of the country for one reason or another before going, and I suppose the case in point is Deir az-Zur. Roundly criticised as a shithole by your typical expat, even in three short days there and despite its numerous warts, I really fell in love with the place, with its vaguely charming French-style riverside restaurants and really unique character.

Damascus? It was diverse. Sometimes bizarre. That’s the best way to describe it, because I could give the city its own blog (horrified gasp from any remaining readers there…). Certainly 81 Baab as-Salaam Lane is a house with many memories, mainly good, which will never leave me. And while I suppose I had the occasional valuable experience at the university, it was largely a necessary evil.


aww…

So. Good times? There were plenty, no doubt. Character building? Yes. Friends for life? I reckon. Piety? I kept it up. Alcoholism? Borderline. My Arabic? Pretty good.

Would I go back? !لازم

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Thanks for reading: and, more importantly, congratulations if you made it this far. Next up? Archaeology this semester sees me going Schliemann on the collective proverbial asses of the Peloponnese, Attica and parts of central Greece. Given I have a course diary to keep, there’ll be lots to write about and I hope interesting pictures. Plus maybe tales of massive slange on the lash in Athens. More plus, there’s some wild talk of Alexandria this summer.

Those will be ones to watch. So come back in a bit, draw up your chair and leave a comment. !إلى اللقاء

Mar Mousa

The same week’s holiday I went to Deir az-Zur (early December, how time flies), I also took a trip north into the Anti-Lebanon mountains to the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, just to chill out for a couple of days. But as it turned out it was fucking freezing that evening and I had a bit of a liturgical issue (more on that later) with the clergy there, so I just went back the next day. I did see some amazing scenery there in that short couple of days, though.

I arrived around sunset from Damascus and faced the usual issue of having to haggle like the dirtiest Egyptian stereotype for a reasonable price for transport. The town of an-Nibik is about an hour away from Damascus and represents that quite common place outside the capital, ‘Syria’ – I walked into a kebab shop and had to repeat my order of one shwarma, no gherkins four or five times before the laddie behind the counter could quite get over ‘wow, he looks a bit different’. Walking around the streets I failed to pass anyone unwilling to stare at me for far longer than really necessary. I suppose it’s quite fun, in a way. Because of the trousers.

Anyway, I eventually found a driver to take me about 15km to the base of the hill on which the monastery itself is situated, and hopped out, the sun having set by this point. I’d been warned about the wolves that hang out around there looking for lone walkers on whom they might forcefully peddle crystal meth, and about facing a long and difficult trek up the mountain, but actually I arrived at the entrance to the monastery about half an hour later not under the influence of a psychoactive stimulant (that was the next day) and only mildly out of breath.

I came up the track you see to the right at the bottom, and the view, especially at night, was pretty والله, defo.

I was staying in the building ahead there, very spartan and monastic, but there was a good library and not much light pollution. These are the first things I look for in a place to stay, obviously.

I awoke fairly refreshed and happy, and that day being Sunday there was a Mass in the mid-morning in the ancient chapel on-site. There was some wonderful artwork there which had been damaged because the building had fallen into disrepair during the Ottoman and early modern periods, and the service itself was particularly difficult to follow, my Aramaic being rather limited…

Talking to a Frenchman who had stayed there for a week, I heard that by legend early Christian hermits had used the many grottoes and isolated wadis in the area for meditation, and that the thumb of St Moses’ right hand had been miraculously separated from the rest of his body and brought to an-Nibik.

It was this nonsense that went on afterwards which irritated me. Drums and guitars have no place inside churches. But a priest beating a drum and chanting الله, الله, الله over and over again is really too far. It’s meant to be a place of worship, of contemplation, but most of all respect. Turning the worship of God into mere spectacle is wrong, and something I would condemn more fully and coherently if this weren’t a blog that’s meant to be vaguely entertaining.

Filled with thoughts and anxious to dwell on them, I set out into the hills for a walk. It was pretty hot.

Only a few minutes into my climb, I ran into a Lebanese chap who very kindly offered to take a picture of me looking like an prize dickhead.

So I walked on. I thought about the landscape I saw, about how empty and bizarre it seemed, but also about how this must have been the same terrain Jesus traversed as he went into the desert for forty days. I suppose it’s particularly appropriate that I’ve not bothered writing this blog until Lent, as I can now add reflections now to active thoughts then. But I suppose I dwelt on life. And I dwelt on my life.

That eerie silence let me think thoughts that I can’t really write down, but that I’d say are some of the most memorable I’ve ever had. I’ve always been a bit of a mystic. But looking over that barren landscape that stretched out forever and standing under baking sun and pure blue sky, with each of my light footsteps a gunshot through complete stillness was a truly bizarre and amazing experience. I spent hours out there. The best part of the day, at any rate. It was one day in Syria that my eight hundred words just can’t even begin to get to grips with – even more so than normal.

But what really puzzles me:

How the fuck did I get sunburnt dressed like that?

Yes, we went to Deir az-Zur and got bevved

‘You’re all fucking useless. You’re about as useful as marzipan dildoes’.

A backward, jalabiyya-filled city on the Iraqi border is probably one of the more appealing places to crack out some of the finest Malcolm Tucker quotes when talking to policemen.

So Roberto and I went to Deir az-Zur last week, taking the bus from Sham across the breadth of the country through the desert. Deir is a strange place. Considered foreigners in Syria but apparently not in Iraq, the inhabitants feel much more in common with Iraq than their current occupier. This is understandable, because after the end of the mandate system the governorate of Deir was unnaturally separated from what is now the rest of Iraq. Crazy, incomprehensible Iraqi dialect predominates everywhere – about the only word of which I understand is ‘zein’ (wahahaha…) – and the place seems generally very alien, even though I’ve become at least reasonably accustomed to the grit of west Syrian towns like an-Nibik or whatever. This is just another facet of how Syria – like many Arab nations – is such an artificial construct of very different cultures, races an lifestyles. Iraqis, eh?

Anyway. ‘Hasanan, so this is Deir az-Zur,’ I concluded as we cruised in through filthy streets past mountains of litter. Into the bus station and, as usual, off we go to have our passports not-so-thoroughly checked to make sure we’re not spies etc. Few minutes later and in comes the bus conductor with our bags. ‘Oh mahalan, I forgot my gilet on the luggage rack’. Back onto the bus and… pow. It’s gone.

Sweet geesh.

Honestly, why me. First I’m mugged in Bab Tuma, then some desert sheeshleek sillyperson takes my bodywarmer with camera, hipflask, moisturiser (all the essentials). Back to the passport policeman for an insurance report (ahh, this is familiar…), he couldn’t help us much, even less than when I had my phone stolen in Damascus. ‘bluhbluhbluh, bluh bluh bluh, bluh bluh bluhBLUHHHH… blubluuuuubluh bluh. ::pause:: Mmm… zein haad?’ in thick Iraqi was about all he could muster.

Onwards and downwards to the main police station just down the road. In we went to a disgusting common area/office/barracks for rank and file policemen which was probably used as a torture chamber in Mufasa’s time, and about a dozen right Iraqis confronted us. If not for the same Syrian police uniform, you’d have thought they were Punjabis by their complexions, but soon you’d realise they were Iraqis – or, in this case, close but no RPG in hand – by the total gobbledegook they were chatting. One man with the thickest, bushiest, blackest mustache I have ever seen stood there gawping at probably the first set of blond hair and blue eyes he’d seen in the flesh, not thinking during the course of two hours’ ridiculous back and forth pointless talking to go to the toilet just round the corner and wash his hands which were completely covered in motor oil. Well mate, kamaa tureed.

The next day I went to Dura Europos, about 75km southeast toward al-Bukamal (see next entry, coming soon).

That evening Roberto and I went on a bit of a quest to find a restaurant that sold alcohol. We were close to giving up at one point (I switched to English in desperation, ‘this whole town’s fucking jaaf, mate!’), and in that same desperation went into the engineers’ club restaurant and asked in low voices if they knew anywhere we could have a wee tipple. Eventually we found a place and all was well.

What happened afterwards will be etched into my memory for a while. We went to find the only place openly functioning as a pub in the whole city, the one word of English outside reading ‘Welekomming!’ (it later emerged that Lonely Planet’s advice is ‘Solo women should avoid’. Cracking). In we went, and after exchanging numerous masaa al-khayrs managed to find a table in the back. We gazed around. Tastelessly decorated in peeling cyan paint all the way to the high ceiling with vaguely-matching plastic chairs and tables and filled with frightening-looking locals and a couple of (very) disillusioned Saudis, this was really not the same thing as your usual pint of Tartan Special in the Gartocher. One man sat in the corner in his checked jalabiyya, koofiyya and tacky bodywarmer drinking straight gin from the bottle. Apparently he’d been doing there all day. Good for him. Another man, a Saudi!, had the same idea, and had made on his table a pyramid of lager cans nearly half the height again.

Then there was the two of us. We started on the beer, passing up the local lager for some infinitely less bad Egyptian stuff. It rolled on. A nearby gentleman claimed to have fought in the first Gulf War on the side of the baddies. Good for him. It rolled on a bit more, and a middle-aged man whose face looked more like sixty-five came and sat down with us, smacking his hand down on the table and shouting rra’! in usual hefty Iraqi, by which he meant ”araQ. A bottle quickly arrived, and he poured a half glass, same again water, and chugged it. Then he did another one. And another. Good for him. He offered the same to Roberto, who picked it up gingerly, smelt it with a look of abject terror, and then took the teeniest tiniest sip. It was passed round to me, and I reckoned there were worse ways to go, so polished off the glass. Hefty. It took about five minutes before the walls started closing in on me, five more and I thought it would be a great idea to tell another patron in a loud voice that the Palestinians do have a voice, but they use it for terrorism. Fortunately for me the place erupted with laughter rather than gunfire, and it turned out that for these chaps the whole issue about Disneyland was more of a joke than a point of anger. Well. There you go.

Zein!

What’s in a blog. Romp?

There’s something very comforting about the genre of escape opera. Probably because it helps you escape from the dark reality you face, or more commonly because you can just sit and have a good laugh. In this instance, it’s the former. Or really, Rossini’s ‘l’Italiana in Algeri’ is more properly a rompish parody of the escape opera, I suppose. Regardless, it’s – WAHAHA SOME ARAB JUST RAN FULL PELT INTO A GLASS DOOR, I’M FUCKING CRACKING UP HERE – a great Arab romp without too much Araby-ness, and lots of romp. Italian woman gets shipwrecked in Algeria, horny Arab wants her, horny Arab gets denied by not-too-dashing Italian antihero, and there’s plenty of singing and romping and rompiness and all that, spiffing. Why can’t Syria be more like that? Romp. (I’m a bit of an antihero already, though). I say that, but I suppose guiltily that I quite like this place on some base level, because of rather than despite its numerous flaws. Complaining loudly and now getting, er, ‘romped’? on antifreeze wherever possible are quite fun, but this is just a microcosm of how bad things are quite good, in a way. Think about it. If you didn’t have bad things to make good things good, good things would just be normal, and there’d be no yardstick. We use Tennent’s as a yardstick, compared with which Carling tastes like decayed corpse and McEwen’s is pretty good. If we had McEwen’s as the only kind of beer in the world, it wouldn’t be good or bad.

This is my profound thought for the day. Also, romp. Do that.

romp [romp]
–verb (used without object)
to play or frolic in a lively or boisterous manner.

‘I’d romp that’.
‘Go for it, that’ll be romps’.

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The class went to the National Museum of Syria today. We worked on the usual text of frolicsome fun and joy for an hour, or about sixty-one minutes too long. I was at the point of choking someone with my ‘Ranch’ coated peanuts (akeed, shabaab?) when we left. Fortunately I can vent my rage by writing about ancient history. Some people don’t have that option. We call them ‘serial killers’.

It was quite good. One of the lads from another class with chat pointed out my first seen snow in Syria on a mountain across Lebanon way, and also informed us that this is rated as the tenth-best museum in the world. It would have higher points if people read ahead on certain items rather than rely on captions, but never mind.

I’ve always been amazed by how the Romans could incorporate new cultures and religions into their own without a hitch. One of the most famous cases in point has to be St Constantine the Great’s adoption of Christianity and the subsequent building of a triumphal arch following his victory at the Milvian Bridge in the same grand style of its pagan-dedicated precursors. Hro-chis, fish and crosses seem immediately at home amongst all those capital letters and that very Roman stone laurelling for some reason. Maybe it goes together so well that we’ve been copying it for the past 1700 years.

The synagogue of Dura-Europos is like that. Dura is simply the must-see site in Syria for the discerning/zealous classicist, and the synagogue there is the first built after the diaspora which survives today. Painstakingly dismantled and transferred to (marginally) better conditions in the museum, you can see why it was a big deal for the chaps who found it. Roman figures clutching menorahs have their names inscribed in Greek above them and enact various famous Biblical scenes. I could bore you with a bit of the more interesting detail and, funnily enough, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

I was talking about cultures dying out in one of my last entries, and was interested in light of this discussion to note several figures cruising around on horses wearing Phrygian caps (Dura having been destroyed in the mid third century AD). Even after their conquest by the Persians about eight hundred years earlier, the Phrygians were a fiercely independent people who clung to their national dress and as a consequence it has taken on strong connotations from ancient Mediterranean cultures up to the present day. The Greeks – …

Okay, fuck that. It’s not like anyone seriously reads this anyway, and those who might certainly won’t stand opera and the themes of ancient Judaeo-Roman frescoes in the same blog entry. Some of my classmates would probably implode on the spot.

Time for some ”araQ, 150 lire a bottle hell yes! I am getting MOTORED!

Finally some pictures to go with all this gibberish

There’s something very comforting about a proper pizza.

It should be cooked in a wood-fired oven. It should be thin and crispy. Most importantly, it should have three toppings, and three only – tomato purée, mozzarella cheese and oregano – the red, white and green from the flag of Europe’s mother nation. I’m sure there are lots of things I could say about Italy and Italians here, but I’ll save that for if I go to Pisa studying for three months. Plain sailing…

Mmm, bravo. Porco dio! etc.

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I like blogging. It lets me separate various different points with series of dashes so that I don’t have to write something with any thematic continuity or particular coherence.

The Baradaa river, more filth for the filth of this filthy slum. Filth!
The Baradaa 'river', more filth for the filth of this filthy slum. Filth!

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Unfortunately these pictures aren’t great, but I’m working on my camera.

The Gate of Peace on the north wall just up the road from my house
'The Gate of Peace' on the north wall just up the road from my house

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When you fart in your sleep and wake up to find yourself in a small puddle of your own liquid faeces yet feel genuinely tempted just to lie there and pretend nothing has happened, you’ve really reached the dark place. I’ve always prided myself on having a stomach of iron (some of my readers may remember… more than me on this issue), but that’s gone to pot now. All for the sake of some spicy pasta sauce and about twelve cashew nuts. This has been food poisoning like never before, I honestly didn’t think there was enough manky water/acid/other nasty stuff in the world to cause such… problems:

0430: get up, not having slept, cursing the nature of physical existence. Spew like Alan on crack

0440: toilet (recurring about every fifteen minutes)

0500: spew

0530ish: find stray cat foraging in bin, encourage it to leave and in the process accidentally spew slightly on cat

0630: aforementioned mess of bed

0645ish: attempt to shower. Spew

It did get a little better from there. But that was yesterday morning (and oho, what a morning!), and the toilet trips still haven’t quite stopped. No Thursday night mayhem for me (well, maybe there will be, but not the usual kind of mayhem, and I’ll wager there will be considerably more human waste involved).

LOVELY

Whitey time...
Whitey time...

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Why is it that some cultures survive and others are lost to history?

If we take traditional Scottish culture as an example, it has been centuries since the clan system, traditional ways of life, language and dress associated with our nation in the mists of time have all but disappeared. This is generally because that manner of existence has no place in the modern world, and it has been replaced by an entirely different – but no less recognisably Scottish – way of life in the land of today. I’m not complaining. There’s really nothing wrong with tweed jackets, ale and fried food. Preferably all at the same time.

This hasn’t been quite as true for the Arabs (and I’m not talking only about black pudding here. Some cultures are just better than others!). Travelling through some of the massive desert of central Syria, we could look out on a landscape that has remained largely unchanged for millennia, and we saw a way of life that has been more or less the same as well for many centuries. That classic stereotype of desert-dwellers, ‘Saracens’, living in squalid conical mud houses in small villages, with animals and children roaming all around without a care and sermons from the local masjid bawled around came surprisingly true. Sure, shepherds had switched from donkey to motorbike, the preacher had switched from shouting loudly to primitive loudspeakers, people had switched from the floor to cheap, broken plastic chairs, but the ideas were the same. It was pretty easy to imagine the land as it must have been all those years ago when these people were first Arabised. I suppose those more in the know must have thought that these new conquerors would be just like the Persians not long before, claiming the land and being driven out not long after. But, as it turned out, Arab culture has been there to stay, a (slight) unifying influence on a region where chaos has always ruled.

Things aren’t dissimilar in Damascus, on a larger scale anyway. I can gaze out from the roof of my house onto the other rooftops of that charming slum of the old city, and it’s not hard to take the satellite dishes and occasional red water tank out of my mind’s eye and imagine myself back when life was simpler. When it still had that certain… extra something which I suppose has been lost with the advent of aspects of modernity around the world. Taking in the mountains, the archaic, alien grandeur of the Umayyad Mosque, and yet the skyline of this slum city, I suppose too that I can begin to see why people have fought over this place for most of the about twelve thousand years it has existed.

Part of the Umayyad Masjid, to this day the biggest (and most impressive) in the world. Photos of the interior to follow
Part of the Umayyad Masjid, to this day the biggest (and most impressive) in the world. Photos of the interior to follow
The Roman eastern gate, from which the Arabs first entered the city
The Roman eastern gate, from which the Arabs first entered the city

yoojad your stupid face, unfortunately

It’s days like this that just make me want to give up.

I’m sure Jonathan Swift has some immensely famous quotation something to do with geniuses appearing in the world and facing confederations of dunces, but I really can’t be bothered with that. It also doesn’t really apply.

It’s always baffled me why anyone wants to be my friend. I’m a cunt. Yes, I’m a hilarious, charming, insightful, cultured, eloquent, well-dressed, great at a party, handsome cunt. But I’m still a cunt. As an incidental observation, it seems ‘cunt’ has yet to be entered into my Word dictionary, something’s gone wrong there. Anyway, what’s even more baffling is the attitude of seemingly most people in my class at the ALC. Having broken the habit of a lifetime, I treat them with the respect, courtesy and justice that any human being deserves. I even insert some of my trademark amazing pithy banter into our otherwise highly mundane but perfectly pleasant conversations, actually making a slight effort – the ultimate compliment. I give them gold.

Solid gold.

And in return, I get zilch. لا شئ . They all think I’m a bitch. They’re completely correct, so I suppose it’s okay in a way, but the point is that I’m not really acting like it. In fact, I’m really not acting like it. It’s quite sad, in a way, because this seems to prove my theory that the best way to succeed is to act like a complete tosspot to everyone and that way you don’t waste any effort (sorry, Jesus).

I was dishing out some of that jewellery in class today. Talking about the recent ban on smoking in public places (more on that later), I compared Syria to the Roman Empire with its famous panem et circenses policy of pacifying citizens, and compared smoking to the free bread of the Augusti. So if it went away, Simba might have a few public order problems on his hands. All I got from my classmates were moronic grins and evil looks despite my idea and my Arabic being the best in the class. I was tempted to add a brief conclusion, switching to English for ‘so fuck you up the nose.’, but that might have made things somewhat worse.

Fucking Syrians. If an Arab came to my country dressed in his race’s standard absurd shiny skinny jeans, black shirt (well, I suppose we have those at home too. Not when I’m in charge…) and shoes whose toes he has to sharpen every day to keep them looking ‘mumtaaz’, I wouldn’t stare at him. I would probably glance querulously for a few seconds and think ‘what the fuck, was he at a Burton fashion show?’, but staring is just plain rude. Equally, if I were a middle-aged woman, I wouldn’t hiss at him based purely upon his race. That’s just not on. That said, every time I see a burka-ed woman or other extreme Muslim in Britain henceforth, I’ll remember that ‘hssssss!!!’ will be the least she deserves as a taste of her own medicine, though the difference is that I’ll do just that. Remember. Not let her know. That’s important.

‘Yeah, I lived abroad once actually, in Damascus. It was a courtyard-style house with a bloated, vile, part-time Kurdish prostitute, a Spanish hippie who though I was a raging gay purely because I told him ‘me gustaria estar entre tus piernas’ as a joke the first time I met him, a fat, indolent kitten which likes to lick people’s shirts and an Italian who had serious involuntary hand spasms every time he said something. Every now and then Gulf Arab women would rock up for a few days with their ‘brothers’ (do people ever believe that?) who happened to look different every time we saw them and we’d hear the scary shagging deep into the night. It wasn’t that interesting really’.

That sounds like a great story, doesn’t it? It’s really just the icing on the cake to have to come back to it after a day like this. Fortunately, as I am a reasonable and intelligent man (and perhaps a liar now…), a hefty whisky, some watermelon, some hefty Handel and an even heftier kick to the face of the stray cat that tries to steal my watermelon are quite enough to turn my anger and frustration into happy, happy, happy times.

Liii-iike as the Smoke vaaa-a-a-aaa-aa-aa-aaaaaanisheth,
so shalt Thou drii-i-i-i-i-iii-iiii-iiiiii-ii-i-iiiiii-i-i-i-ive Them awa-ayyy!

True dat, blud. Respec’

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I’m getting the (swear word) out of the Fourth World for half term, so my blog is off for a bit. I’ll be back in a fortnight, full of pork products and ready to complain some more.

“من أنا؟”

‘Who am I?’ Philosophers, theologians and people generally have been asking this question since they could think for themselves.

To me, who we are depends as much upon the accomplishments and traditions of our ancestors as it does upon our own life stories, attitudes and interests. I’ve adumbrated something about the intense relationship between past and present in Arab culture, and also something about the equally intense emotional properties of Classical Arabic for educated Arabs.

Something I’m really big on is linguistic unity. I would fiercely defend the preservation of Gaelic, Scots and Welsh as British languages, but my point is that English-speaking areas across the length of our country ought to have a standardised form which can be used to communicate with non-locals. So someone should be able to come from Canterbury to Londonderry, Aberdeen to Exeter, Weymouth to Glasgow, and understand and be understood. In terms of people who speak Arabic as a first language – who are thought to number more than three hundred million – this is a bit more difficult. Even within Syria, a couple of hundred miles can be a language barrier for the uneducated. My erstwhile Kurdish exchange partner is very fond of the word ‘chinabrin’, as it seems are other Aleppines and Kurds. Apparently it means ‘crazy’ in English, but depending on intonation, voice level and tone it can mean a lot of things from ‘oh, don’t be so silly…’ to ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?!?’. I tried to use it in Damascus and, fairly predictably, was met with blank gapes all round as if there were something utterly fascinating going on about a metre behind my head.

Standards of education in Syria generally are astonishingly poor. The idea that I could walk down Buchanan Street and find a Scot who doesn’t understand when I speak to him in his own national language is unthinkable, but here it happens surprisingly often. You’d be surprised how many Syrians can only speak ”amiyya and a couple of broken French words but barely one of proper Arabic that isn’t babytalk, that my housemate, a university graduate, had to have me, a foreigner, explain to her the rules of using case markings, and that her friends can’t form the gerunds of mildly irregular verbs. It’s strange to think that after two and a bit years of really not very intense study I speak better proper Arabic than a lot of… Arabs.

Proper FusHaa represents the most highly developed form of practical verbal communication in human history. I refuse to mangle it and stoop to the level of the morons. Unfortunately many Arabs don’t have that choice. It’s strange to think how refreshing it is to sit and read the New Testament in Arabic and grasp nearly everything immediately yet not have a fucking clue what’s going on when someone strings together a group of random sounds which is what passes for everyday conversation. It’s just like what I said earlier – nobody gives a fuck what you’re saying, it’s how you gesticulate, carry yourself and glare that gets your point across. Your average Hasan Ali cruising around in his ridiculous shiny jeans and shirt covered in epaulettes doesn’t care about what it actually means when he talks, however much he loves to go on and on and on about stale chickenshit until I want to wedge a screwdriver in his eye.

Educated, decent Arabs? The quest continues…

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‘How about you cunt off and fuck your cousin, dinklips’ is the first thing I want to say to all the wise guys who think they can shout ‘habeeb’ at me in their fucking whiny, ineffectual voices and expect me to be their friend. That said, I’m now gaining a bit of a mixed reputation on the streets around Baab as-Salaam. I’m guilty of both returning politely the greetings of the local Shia population and whacking a boy in the face in my rage. The same odious brat has hit me three times deliberately with a football, and on my way out today I decided enough was enough. In a momentary dearth of linguistic ingenuity that has left churn marks all around Ibn al-Muqaffa”’s grave, ‘You stunted whoreson! Get the fuck out of my face!’ was my verbal retort and my comically small fist my physical as it wiped the infuriating grin off his face and sent him running back to his hovel.

‘Mummy, that bad man from Scotland was very nasty!’

My work here is done.

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…