اتذكر يوم الحلاقة الأولى

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.

Language.

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).

Registration.

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.

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3 Responses to “اتذكر يوم الحلاقة الأولى”

  1. Lesley Says:

    Well now I can’t avoid picturing the lederhosen. Thanks for that.

  2. Ami Says:

    wusste garnicht das es dort so viele christen gibt.das mit dem barber-shop klingt lustig!gehst du da jetzt regelmäßig hin?warum habt ihr eigentlich keine spiegel?

  3. Heather Says:

    You can thank Sophia for this comment, she told me to read this instead of bugging you with an e-mail when I met her to get that Mozart back (finally!) this evening. Anyway, sounds like Syria isn’t quite as badass as I imagined but it still seems pretty terrifying! I’m well impressed that you went and got shaved though, I mean I still haven’t got a haircut in Germany yet, how’s that for wimpy? Anyways, your probs bored by my crap bant now! Just letting you know I don’t object to e-mails 🙂 xx

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