Archive for March, 2010

Broken laptop.

March 22, 2010

Dear Readership,

It is with great regret that I have to report that my laptop is broken. Syria reportedly has a reputation for breaking people’s laptops.

This impedes me from replying to emails and writing blogs of great length and interesting content.

Photos a no-no.

Things to look forward to after this drought:

News about heating system and photograph of The Tadfa’a (Oh Hallowed Tadfa’a).

Stay well.

Linguists do the weirdest things

March 19, 2010


There are a number of topics I meant to write about in the last entry that I didn’t. This fact solicited a new document on my computer entitled “Things to blog about.” So now I can jot down the little things that I want to remember and will most likely forget. And it helps give me some kind of idea of where I’m going with what.

So. Something that happened right at the beginning of my Damascus experience was the flight. And I forgot to mention something which I really do want to remember. Two things actually.

Firstly, when I was lounging around in the departure lounge, I sat near 4 American golden-agers who were talking about their flight being 5 hours and the time difference being an hour. So I struck up conversation with them, opening “Let me guess: you’re going to Damascus.” I was right! So we chatted for a while, talking about our various intentions and expectations of the place. Turns out they were just travelling, but they were super intrigued by my moving to live there for 6 months. So was/am I. It’s still pretty scary.

Anyway, I left them when the gate number came up and said I’d see them there. When I got to the gate, there were loads and loads of [insert more politically correct term for OAPs here] just wandering around and they all knew each other. But there were loads of them! I couldn’t believe it. And they were all saying thigns like, “I haven’t seen you in ages! How are you? (How was your hip operation?)” (ooh, too mean). So I was a bit confused. My first thought was that they were all ex-patriots from Damascus who’d come back to see family or something and I was scratching my head for a reason why March would be a good excuse to go home.

The few of us that weren’t in this group (we were very identifiable), all gathered near or around me (funnily, though, the Americans sort of latched on to the OAPs). I made vague eye contact with this woman opposite me and we eyed the group of them up together.

Anyway – the point is (and I found this out myself on the plane), they were all from some London guild. The woman I was sitting next to (the chances were v high that I’d be next to someone from the group) asked me whether I was “with the London Guild too?”, to which I obviously replied no. Anyway. She told me that they were on a 10-day tour around Syria (or just Damascus, I forget) and that there were 94 of them. Which was pretty scary for the uninitiated.

So that’s one thing I wanted to record.

Another thing I want to write about is the nature of blogging. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I actually aim to do with my blog, considering I read a lot of other people’s blogs and I do actually have stuff to write about and, reportedly and seemingly, in an interesting way (oh god, I’m a “blogger.” Now I feel sick). But anyway. My main point is not to write interesting literature. My aim is to keep people at home up-to-date on what’s going on with me and also to record things that I’m very likely to forget later so that I can read back and enjoy all the memories in my head. In fact, that last one’s the entire reason – and it’s hyper selfish. It’s also a bit of a forum for me to show off the pictures of stuff I’ve taken and that, but I’m not doing so well on that front. And also, that filters nicely into the “letting people at home know what’s going on”-thing. So yeah.

This was all kicked off by Fay telling me that she reread the article about when she surprised me in Heidelberg. She said that she’d reread it because she wanted to remember it and it was written well. I like that people enjoy what I write. But I don’t plan these things very much; I just let’r rip. Or whatever that phrase is.

On that topic: I did write a list of things I want to put in this entry (and have done before) so the “I don’t plan what I write” is a bit of a (massive) lie.

While I’m being self-analytical, I should write that I’m so happy people have continued to read the drivel I’m writing and I’d like to thank everyone who’s sent me emails! It’s so lovely to hear from people and my current access to the internet situation means I can’t write pretty wealthy replies at home and then have my email client send them all off when I do get online (which is far more often than I’d like at the minute). So yeah – thank you for your continued readership.

So here’s how things are going.

Now I look at this list, most of the stuff is just a one-sentence thing, which means my blog’d be short, but who likes summaries? Not I. So I’ll write at a bit more length.

Arabic is hard. I mean, I knew that before I came. And I was vaguely aware of the idea that I’d have to study hard and really engage the fact that I was studying Arabic when I got here. I mean – I’d expected that it would get more real after I got here; before it was just this weird little thing I’d study every day, cold and grammatical, much of a muchness to maths really. But now, I’m having to engage with it like I had to engage with German years ago, when I started to put things into practise.

This is something that everyone has to deal with here, I think. I’ve come in late to it, so everyone’s used to it now. The bad days are hard and the good days are just ‘ok.’ It’s confusing for that reason – it’s quite difficult to get like a “good” day, but then I guess that’s dependent on a lot of things. Fay’s doing really well, for example, and I’m sure she has days (like I did in Germany at the beginning), where you just feel so on top of it and you can feel the fluency coming.

It’s made me really deal with that, as I say. And made me re-evaluate the whole reason I’m studying this language in the first place. I mean – why Arabic? Why did I choose Arabic? What’s it for? I’ve just remembered I dream I had in Germany about here before I arrived (I think, this is all very vague): I had to run around the city and collect 10 reasons (which were tangible… stupid dreams) why I was learning Arabic and I was struggling to put them all together. Pretty obvious what that means.

A school marching band’s just banded past. And it was loud.

The course (hereafter called ‘school’) at uni is an odd thing, really. Because I’ve come in half-way through the intermediate level, all my classmates have this bank of vocab that I’m just not used to that they’ve been picking up from the previous levels. And others of them have really strong speaking. And the teacher speaks in Arabic at quite a rate and, because the others are totally used to being taught in Arabic, there’s rarely a problem with comprehension. When she uses words she doesn’t think we’ll know, she stops and asks if we know what it means and it’s no problem if you don’t: she’s a good explainer. In fact, she’s a very good teacher.

The flip-side, about me being weak, has really given me some grief, particularly towards the middle of the week, when I often came out of the class completely de-motivated and pretty depressed. I think it was Tuesday afternoon when I fumbled with the edges of the idea of just going. Just telling school I was done with this, going home, packing my stuff up and just going. But then I remembered I’d made myself The Pact of 2 Months, so I can’t. And I’m glad I didn’t now anyway, because I don’t want to anymore. And because I know that now, I know how to deal with it in the future.

There is, luckily, a really easy way to force myself into a wonderful mood and that’s music. I always delay how soon I get my headphones (<3) out and listen to something because it really picks me up. But I did it the other day and it was amazing – Arnold’s first symphony. I listened to a symphony a day, currently about to listen to 6. I realised that I don’t really like his earlier symphonies too (now I sound massively annoying: “I don’t like much of his earlier work”). I listened to the Rite as well, because that just makes me love things.

Phew. Getting this list down slowly.

Oh yeah, on the picture. This is what I thought was my local mosque’s minaret, but it’s actually my second nearest one. I didn’t realise this until afterwards, but the picture’s taken from my bedroom door (with 10x optical zoom on trusty Sony. Still need to give him a name). Fay and I just got a shisha.

Ah. While still vaguely on the Arabic theme: I bought a Hans Wehr dictionary the other day, which is the definitive Arabic-English dictionary on the market and is arranged by root, rather than alphabetically which is super handy for studying the language or translations; it means you can look up a word and see how it gets there and what words are made of the same root – it’s actually really fascinating. You very often get words which completely change meaning when they get further down the forms. Can’t think of any example other than the one I stumbled on by accident (can’t remember why I was looking up the root ja-da-fa (ج د ف) now, but…): tajdeef (the ‘infinitive’ of the 2nd root of those letters) means blasphemy and also rowing, the sport. How weird is that! Can’t see any logical link it, but I’ve forgotten what other meanings that root had. But that’s a funny story anyway.

Anyway, the reason I started that train of thought is because you look up words in the thing and the very last mutation of the way the letters can be arranged around auxiliary letters is so, so often the verb, “to look up alphabetically.” How can that many words mean “to look up”?! Like sometimes it says that more than once a page! It’s ridiculous.

By chance, an Arab was testing me on how to say that the other day and I had a small internal laugh about which one I could choose (as if I’ve learnt any of them). I said a different verb which also means ‘to search for’ and used the correct preposition. He said I was right, so I’m just guessing all of those other words belong to that flowery level of Arabic which doesn’t get used all that much.

(My God, I love writing on Word – autocorrect is love)

Last thing before I start addressing the smaller things on my “things to blog about” in the form of a end-of-entry list: “language students do the weirdest things.” (I was struggling for a title so this is titled retrospectively)

I was thinking about how devoted to our degrees we lot have to be. Like, most other students have to do very little unusual stuff to be advance in their degrees – English students will very happily spend their three years at the host university, reading and writing and all other inflections of Englishy goodness. Engineering, chemistry, pharmacy, vet students, medics might have to go do a year in industry somewhere or something similar, but year abroad students? We have to move abroad to complete our degree.

What great devotion it is to my degree that I’ve moved to the Middle East for 6 months! And I can’t continue my degree unless I’ve spent time in the Middle East. Not at Durham anyway, without some pretty special circumstance. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s a huge and amazing experience, but so, so out of a comfort zone. I mean, Germany wasn’t bad at all (Jenny made it worse by making me aware of the words “I’m moving abroad” and, if you recall (probably not.. not sure whether I wrote about it now), I was dealing with the idea of the one-way ticket). Syria’s a bit like that too. In some ways, it’s more than that because the sentence “I live in Syria” is true (even if “live” is a bit far, being that it’s only (‘only’) 6 months, but still).

It’s so strange. You gotta be a special type to study languages.

(Obviously no offence to anyone who studies a boring subject – there is of course opportunity to travel abroad (cf Sophia and Sarah), but it’s not obligatory. This is just reflection).

I miss Sophia so much.

And I miss everyone in Germany. The Germans, the English folk… Everyone. I miss Heidelberg. I’ve found here that everyone really misses where they were before; this experience is just hugely different.

Ok, list time:

Had a second shave with the same guy – not as good this time if I’m honest, my face hurts a bit, but I think he’d had a long day; he wasn’t nearly as chatty. Suffered a change in weather – it went from hugely warm and summery (and a bit unbearable), through really, really windy and now into cold and sunny. Stupid March. Heard the words (in English) “Here’s twenty-five thousand pounds” and felt super, super rich (was only $550 though), broken my photo virginity of Damascus (as proved above), decided to make a Facebook album (slash conceptualism) on currencies of my year abroad, experienced the Arabic sentence: “If there’s no movement from Daniel for a while, he’s working with wool!” from Abu Tariq (landlord) (lol!), done my first wash (I was running out of pants, man), met Fay’s host family a bit more (twice now) and saw her host-mum, Widdo, who is really funny, do some funky dancing after she’d made us lunch (hilarities), went out for breakfast with Sam (housemate), almost failed at speaking German with this women from Switzerland (must get some regular German contact); really, really craved a Bakewell tart; successfully told an Arab to stop speaking to me in English (the guy I bought my dictionary from actually), worried about a piece of homework I have to do (we have to transcribe a listening text which is about 3 minutes long – scary! But, like teach said, it’s good practise for writing, listening and spelling and all sorts), had lols with Fay about the ATM near my house: Fay: “Is it electrocuting you?” me: “No” Fay: “That means it’s not working.” … me: “Aaah, Syria.” (haha); worried about whether to get my host mum something for mother’s day; unsuccessfully navigated my way home from uni by myself, (remember all the broken pegs), struggled to find a replacement for the “Alle Richtungen” banner.

Can’t think of anything else. And bored.

اتذكر يوم الحلاقة الأولى

March 12, 2010

For those friends of mine who aren’t (yet) Arabic-able, that reads “atadhakkir yowm alHalaaqa aluula,“ which means “remember the first day of shaving”!

So, what just happened is this. I haven’t shaved since I got here. And that was last Wednesday (3rd). And there’s no mirror in my house for me to whip out my trusty Phillips and do it myself. So I decided (that makes it sound far more concise than it really is) that I’d try out some of this Middle Eastern living and go somewhere and have a barber do it. Sam – my new-found housemate – had had his done in a barber’s round the corner from here for 50 SYP (which is like… 72p). I decided, on his recommendation, to give this place a whirl (after having first moaned to Claire about not being brave enough). I walked through the street (getting stood on by a guy who hadn’t seen me – great) to this place, found it and asked in Arabic how much it’d cost. He replied in English (more on this later as well *snarl*) that it was 100SYP so I said, “100?! Take 50.” And he said no. So I left.

But! I’d seen one on my way to that place previously on the main street where the barber was shaving himself. So I returned there (struggled with the door) and asked the same question. He said 50. I sat myself down while he finished his shaving.

Now, anyone who knows me pretty well will know that I have huge issues with my neck being touched and I was pretty worried about this when I went in. But it turns out; he was rough and ready enough for it not to be a problem. I got all that crazy white foam stuff on my face like you see in the movies (or on your dad’s face), with really pleasantly warm water too. It tasted vaguely of chemical lemons.

So he whipped out his razor and started chatting to me, razor at my throat. The Azaan (more on that later too) came on (it’s the call to prayer for Muslims which gets massively boomed across the whole city periodically – sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it’s pretty awful). The guy who had been sitting in the corner (neither customer nor barber, it seemed) closed the door at this point. The guy shaving me at this point asked, having previously established I was British (having first guessed I was German (?) (another guy guessed I was Finnish today too when he was trying to sell me something on the street)), whether we have “all this Allahu Akbar!” in England. I laughed and said no, but that it does happen in the bigger cities (bit of a guess, but I had images of Birmingham and Leicester and Bradford in my head when I said it).

Anyway. I asked him whether he was Christian (which was a bit of a non-question, because the walls were covered with pictures of Jesus and Mary – very openly religious are these Syrian types), which led us into a history lesson about how the Syrian people used to be Christian and every Syrian Christian is actually of Muslim origin. His lesson was interspersed with him saying “you speak good Arabic!”, which he did probably 3 or 4 times. That was nice.

So yeah! Now I’m all frisch rasiert and lookin’ up!

“How-is-it-how-is-it!” I hear you all cry. Yeah – good question. It’s very, very Middle Eastern. I mean, I’d obviously been expecting that (what fool wouldn’t?), but it really is. You can’t bring any of your Western/European scruples here with you – you gotta be ready to accept what you can get and pay the (very, very cheap) prices for it. Which is perfectly fine.

I’m living in a house in the Old City (sorta between Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi, for those who wanna google-earth it) and I’m paying 13,000 SYP a month. Which is like.. £188 or something. I mean, it’s a good rate and the whole house is very clean compared to some of the others I’ve seen. The landlord and lady are known to me only by orientation around their son, Tariq, as “Abu Tariq” and “Am Tariq” respectively (father of, and mother of Tariq). They have a daughter, though. But I still don’t know her name.

Abu and Am Tariq don’t speak any English, but do speak fusHa quite well (which is the Arabic I learnt in Durham and Heidelberg) (as opposed to the ‘amiyyah, which is a kind of dialect, but the dialects are so big that they’re almost different languages (ie, not always mutually comprehensible by ‘Arabic’ speakers from across the Middle East.), which is a huge use. I discovered today, though, that the daughter and Tariq (and assumedly his fiancée) speak English.

While we’re on the topic of home and house (paste recipe for some fancy-pants Victoria sponge cake here): when I came in the house earlier (having been to sort out registration – more on this later (I’m sick of writing that)), Am Tariq and the daughter (I called call her Akht Tariq (sister of Tariq)… He’s such a focal point) were sitting in their living room, rolling these small balls of what could’ve been just about anything. We went through the formalities (of my crap Arabic versions of “hello! How are you!”) and then I asked what they were doing. The only word I got out of their reply was that they were making ‘kibbeh,’ a bowl of which Amu Tariq later brought up to me to try! I embarrassingly had to ask whether it was meaty and told her I was a vegetarian, but, upon being told no, gobbled it all (with a spoon) in one or two mouthfuls! It was yum-tum. And I’d do it again.

Before we leave this topic and bridging to a similar topic: I discovered Amu Tariq is a knitter (I spied a seed-stitch scarf which, with lots of pointing and mimicking, it transpires, she knitted for Abu Tariq). I showed her my Addi Clicks set, which, I think, led to her telling me she could only knit with straight needles. I jokingly told her I’d teach her and, thank God, nothing’s come of that, but I suspect it will when I can speak more Arabic (and, admittedly, probably from myself more than from any wish or desire from her). Anyway: I’ve started knitting Seascape, by Kieran Foley (which you can Rav for yourselves – my internet’s not great, even when I do get access to it) in a lovely lace-weight silk/cashmere/mohair mix (of proportions 20%/10%/70%, I think) in colour green. There will eventually be photos of this up on Ravelry, but time’s a-wastin’. And I’m a-bloggin’.

So what are things I want to type about? Let’s go through and find out what I said I’d talk about later in a nice and uneven plan. So: language, azaan and registration etc.


Sure, I can’t speak this language very well and sure, I make lots of mistakes when I speak, but at least I’m speaking. Any polite person in their right mind would chat back in the language they were addressed in, but you find yourself constantly being addressed in English, no matter what extent of ‘amiyyah (that’s dialect, remember?) you’re using. Sometimes, you do find people who are willing to talk to you in Arabic and, as it transpires, the more that happens, the more they realise you actually only speak and understand fusHa (that’s High Arabic); so they have to switch to it so you can understand them – which isn’t always a problem. In fact, it nearly never is. But then when you wanna whip out your question, “Do you have change for a 500-note?”, which you only know in dialect, you do this and then they laugh. Not in a mean way, admittedly, but still. It is a bit soul shattering to be laughed at, ‘amiyya or fusHa.

Another problem I’ve had with settling in to this new language is probably one of quite predictable monotony. I can’t do it. And I settle myself by saying “you’ve only been here # days, # weeks,” but that just as easily has its very, very depressing counter-argument: you’ve been learning this bloody language for 2 whole years. 2 and a half, if you count studying Arabic in German (I’m not all that sure how much that helped, to be honest).

I’m coming into it now. That previous paragraph was going to be an entire blog, full of moaning and “omg I’m leaving,” but I’m happy about everything now. So I’ll summarise what that was going to be: it’s massively made me question my degree and made me think, on multiple occasions, “why didn’t/don’t I just learn Finnish/Norwegian/Danish/Dutch/Polish/Turkish/etc?!” It’s also made me super-conscious of the fact that I have a lot of work ahead of me and that it’s going to be hard to get any kind of real proficiency in Arabic (but 6 months says I can do it). It’s also made me deal with the idea of dropping Arabic altogether and made me have to grapple with the idea of returning to Durham to complete a degree in one language only. As a result of that, I’ve set myself a two month target. When this is up, I’ll review how confident I feel in Arabic (compared to how most of those who I’m hanging with from Durham are now (Fay, Claire etc – because that’s where there are now)) and decide whether it’s worth carrying on or not. I’ve set this up like it’s not something I’m worried about, but I get more and more comfortable with the concept of dropping Arabic as it this time goes on – it’s just that currently I’m having an up, not a down.

It’s also made me review German and made me decide that it isn’t the fact that I love German itself as a language that much anymore (I have since realised that this isn’t the case – I do love German for the language itself), but rather that I was happy with my ability to get to it: I came up with a metaphor when talking to Claire Read, which I later reused in an email to Sophia and it was this: it’s like I’m sailing in a little wooden rowing boat down this huge (and largely calm) English river & on one side (visualised as the right-hand side, for some reason or other) is a big, big shore of German. When I speak German, I steer my little boat over there, jump out and stand proudly on the German shore (picture or picture not Lederhosen, as the reader wishes). On the other side of this huge river (and therefore very unobtainable) is this rickety, wooden jetty (imagery not intended to be representative of the Middle East and all coincidences are not (entirely) the wish of the author (even if they do seem to fit uncannily well)) of Arabic. And getting into Arabic means a mad dash from German (if that’s where I am), back into the boat (or just a jump in the river – Lederhosen are heavy though), pretty fierce rowing (upper arms?) back across the river and plaintive, shy viewing of the Arabic-jetty from the comfort of my in-the-English wooden rowing boat.

The metaphor doesn’t work all that well, because it doesn’t depict the fact that German words come to me so, so much faster and I often put them in Arabic sentences (this is something other linguist friends of mine have discovered – you find yourself often surrounded by the first foreign language you learnt and end up just grabbing words from that when you tell yourself you need words in a foreign language – I picture this like an Olympic hammer field, where there’s the centre (English), where the thrower (linguist) is standing and then levels of vicinity, 10m, 20m etc. The linguist struggles to throw hammers hard enough to reach Arabic (20m away) and often just lands in German (10m), because it takes far less effort. This imagery is also limited, because I’m not visualising myself bringing those two layers into the same layer and squeezing things in, so they’re the same distance from me, just that one’s on the left and the other on the right. Hope that makes sense).

So that’s all for language.

Azaan. I may well be spelling that wrong, but these are the calls to prayer (I dunno what it is in Arabic, but I know that the guy who does it is called the muezzin (and it must, therefore, be a verb which does not belong to root 1… praps it’s 2). In the hostel I stayed in, the local muezzin sang (terminology?) really, really well, even if it did wake me up at 4.30 for the three (4?) nights I slept there. It was amazing – it’s such a deep-hitting thing, like.. It gets you right there. But not always – there are some pretty awful ones too. Like the one nearest my house, which is about to strike up any minute now, by chance (I can hear the other ones in the background) – that one’s pretty bad. I wish it was better, because it’s my local one and have considered moving rooms for that very reason (you pay rent monthly and so pretty are pretty much mobile. This place is really good though and I’m quite sure I won’t leave (it’s very clean and the family are lovely).


Registering for the classes here is a huge pain. You have to sit a test, get tested for AIDS/HIV, get a letter from your embassy (which costs 2900 SYR! (£42!)) and have a couple of photocopies of your passport and a few passport photos left over – the other things, AIDS test and embassy letter require photos and copies too. It’s a huge ache. But I’ve done it! It’s over now. I’m placed in group 5 (out of 8), which is the middle of the intermediate group. Ideally, I’d’ve been far better than that (and been placed in the advanced level, like I was in Germany), but I’m very happy, considering how hard the test was and how rusty my Arabic is when I’m speaking to people. It gets better all the time – I mean, I had some pretty good Arabic chat with the taxi drivers yesterday as I was jetting off all over the city to get various documents, photos and/or veins to the relevant people in time.

But yeah. I’m registered. I don’t have AIDS. I’m level 5. I’m also going to have 2 whole months of course-less time in Syria – need to email Durham about that.

The local Azaan’s on. Wish he’d shut up so I can hear the one just behind him – which is better. This guy always does it the exact same.

Edited in later: there is actually one more thing I want to write about. It kinda feels like I’m starting all my whole year abroad again – new place, new people, new language, new house, new weather. To be expected, I suppose. Laura Flannery said “Year abroad part II” today, when we were bemoaning how hard it was leaving the countries we’d left behind (for her, France). Which led me onto another point:

Linguists do so much for their degrees. As a bunch, we’re so dedicated to what we’re doing. I mean – we’ve moved to Syria, man. Like. Syria. Where even is that?! What student has to move to the Middle East for 6 months to complete his degree? And how dedicated are students to their degrees to do that? It’s totally crazy.

Kinda cool though; it means there are familiar faces here and that we’re all going through the same thing.

Photos and stuff to follow.

Heidelberg-style list of stuff I’ve done recently:

Been to the Goethe Institut (institute for German-speaking in Damascus – turns out it’s just round the corner from the British embassy). Sat down and chatted with some random Germans (shocking them that I was British *proud of self*). Met Dietmar Riemann (dunno whether he’s famous, but he’s a photographer and had an exhibition running in the Goethe Institut when I went to visit – just turned out he was there by chance really). Got really sick of writing this blog on Microsoft Word, because it doesn’t know shit about grammar and keeps trying to correct me and tell me every 2nd sentence is a fragment (consider revising YOURSELF, BITCH). Met a girl called Zema (pronounced like Emma with a Z at the beginning). Eaten what is reportedly the best ice-cream in all of Syria (threw more than half of it away because it was presented badly and I couldn’t work out how to get it in without first getting it all over my hands). Eaten more than a man’s yearly supply of falafel and loved it. Learnt that the word tomato is not “TomaaTim,” as expected, but rather “benadoora,” which sounds way too Spanish/Italian for me to be happy. Bought an English-English-Arabic dictionary, which only gives me Arabic words through a definition first of the English word I’m looking up (which is actually very handy). Pined over many a copy of the Hans Wehr dictionary (which is a canonical dictionary for the Arabic student, because it’s arranged by root of the letter and then the root’s forms etc – sounds complicated but is very, very helpful). Swooned over the idea of getting the untranslated version (Hans Wehr is, as expected, a big fat German, so originally wrote the dictionary in German – which I chance to know quite well), but decided I probably won’t do. Written the following words in my Arabic vocab booklet: opposite, impossible, change (in a till), change (currency), paper (and £ notes), cleanliness, clean, how much (in dialect), what time is it (dialect), change (coins, also ‘iron’), plate, glasses, to irritate, silly, fridge, win (against), backgammon, rest, comfortable, awesome/wonderful, corner, knife, fork, spoon, castle & empty. My battery’s running out so I’ll finish this list later. [some hours later…] taken to wetting my forearms every time I wash my hands, because of the heat (it was 29ish today). Had some banter with Qaasim, Fay’s mate. Felt good about having scored into level 5 on the placement test – seemingly not so bad after all. Worried that I haven’t documented the first part of the 2nd half of my year abroad well enough, either in photographs or bloggery. Practised mastering the art of replying to emails offline and then having my computer save them for Send Later.

مع السلامة, بريطانيا, لمرةٍ أخرى

March 3, 2010

Syria, country housing the oldest city in the world, which will houses the Umayyad Mosque and me for the next 6 months. Other stuff you need to know: this is how the national anthem goes (lyrics here), language: Arabic, currency: Syrian pounds (only buyable in situ, recently learned), president: Bashar Al-Assad, population: about 21 million, time zone: GMT+2. All of this information (and more!) is available by a quick read through the wiki page for Syria. (I’m getting into linking).

Am I scared, you may well ask. The answer, ladies and gentlemen, is yes. Beyond belief. Completely unreasonably, as well. I know people who are out there, people who are surviving perfectly well and learning Arabic and embracing culture changes; Fay’s meeting me from the airport – what have I to fear? The massive, massive unknown. The fact that I’ve got to squish down the fat linguist in me who says “NEVER SPEAK TO A NATIVE IN YOUR OWN NATIVE. THAT’S NOT HOW WE DO THINGS.” The fact that I’m not going to understand things people say to me. Not even in the majority. The fact that I don’t know where things are, I don’t have accommodation, I don’t know where the university is. I keep turning the word, Syria, over and over in my mouth, saying it aloud, this way and that… Just wondering whether I should print out that wiki page for Damascus and take it with me.. Something to read on the 5 hour plane journey.

So here’s how I roll for the next 24 hours: 9.46am, a train will depart from Newark North Gate, carrying me, 25kg of my best and most Quentin Crisp-alike clothing (linen jackets and chinos with deck shoes, also linen, and some leather flats), a laptop bag and a hand luggage bag with something to read in it. Then I shall arrive at King’s X in London, wander purposefully and beladen across the street to St. P, choob it up an hour and wander into Heathrow at something like 12.30, whereupon I shall trudge up to some kind of check-in desk, sweaty profusely, and hand over all my worldlies to a woman with a fake smile and a lot of make-up. Then I’ll fight my way through Heathrow security, with a Syrian visa and a passport and, hopefully, some boarding pass or other, then sit and wait – with my books and bits of newspaper – until they call for “all passengers to Damascus.” When I hear that, I’ll up and do what the lady says – she’ll probably be robotic and forceful. Then, 3.35pm, I’ll be sitting on a plane, heading for Damascene skies, books in hand, heart beating at an unreasonable rate and, hopefully, surrounded by Arabs or equally petrified Brits. Then I’ll read and read and read until finally arriving at Damascus, 10.45pm local time. Give in some landing card and visa form, battle my way through the Syrian side of things and change about £1,000 into Syrian £. Then I’ll marvel at the massive numbers for a bit. Then I’ll meet Fay. Fay! Fay’s gunna be there! She’ll give me a huge hug and introduce me to her landlord and that’ll be the last English I speak that day. Off, off and away.

I want to go to bed and sleep, but I want to mention two things before I do that.

Firstly, a wiseman once said to me that being scared and still doing something is proof that one is alive. He was right, that man. So what, I’m scared? I can look back on myself, the one from the family who went to Syria for 6 months and learnt Arabic, in a few years’ time and be really proud of myself. Being scared is just my kick up the bum, forcing me to do stuff that I know is gunna be good.

Secondly, there’s this emotion that I get. It’s been documented quite closely in a number of sayings synonymous with Britishness over the years, but I’ll give a go at explaining what I mean from my angle. It’s the Sigh Theory.

I’m gunna be sitting there in Heathrow departure lounge. And when I have to get up and go, I’ll breathe in deeply, heave my stuff over my shoulders and off I’ll go. That breath, that almost-sigh, is the thing. It’s that “grin and bear it.” It’s that, “come on, lads, off we go.” Last chance to be scared now, cause it’s starting.

But I’m armed with my little Sony H20 cam, bought on Ami’s advice, ready to document all the goods and all the bads that come along with the experience. 6 months in Syria, ey. Who’da thunk it.

breathes in deeply.

Come on, Sony, it’s just me and you now.