Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Description of My Home Life in Damascus When I was there in Fall 2006

I rent a room in a traditional Arabic home of a Syria-Palestinian Christian family in the Old City in the Christian quarter, or the area called Bab Toma. The old city is ancient and is considered the longest inhabited city in the world. Many foreigners rent rooms here from Christian families and it is a common sight to see Europeans walking around here who are more often from Germany or Italy. I learned that most of the renters are Christians as the Muslim custom of the wearing of the hijab is an inhibition for Muslims to rent rooms to foreigners; although if they do, they rent only to women. My room is very basic and Spartan although spacious. I live with the elements here as there is no AC. It’s the first time I’ve actually felt the heat. Even during summers in Kuwait we would rush between air-conditioned cars or homes and stores. But the one fan in my room was enough to keep cool in the heat. I felt my room was something of a cave from the blazing heat of the sun. As the weather has cooled it has become a place of warmth. The showers were mostly cold which were fine during the summer heat, but with the recent cooling of the weather with the start of autumn six weeks ago, the owners have been turning the water heater on more often.
My first room was rather large and there were three drawings of Jesus, two of Mary, and a picture of an old man who I presume to be a dead husband. Paint was chipping off the wall on one side of the room and furniture, while worn, was useable. Luckily, my room was fairly insect and mosquito free; although I saw three cockroaches. One of them was dead and being carried off by an army of ants as I walked in the room who then dismembered the body over the course of two days and carried the different parts through a small opening in the wall leaving just the shell and a leg for me to throw away. Every now again I heard noises behind the curtains covering the cubicle recesses in the wall on one side and once, as I was checking to see what it was, a roach fell out towards me, landed on its back, and played dead. Then I made it so it no longer had to play dead. There have been no more encounters since. The roof of the room was made of logs as are many houses in the old city and once in a while there were mysterious wood shavings on my bed or my shirt laying on the sofa chair only to look up and see a possible place where insects have been burrowing into one of the logs. Because I felt the room would not be warm enough in winter, I switched rooms with the owners to a much smaller one next door which I like more. This room also has four icons of Jesus and three of the Virgin Mary.
The presence of Christian icons is ubiquitous in the Christian quarter, not only in people’s homes but also in the old city streets. There are many statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in little nooks and corners of the streets protected behind metal bars. I am not sure what is the significance of these icons, whether they serve as historical reminders or not as the old city is mentioned in the Bible and appears in some stories of Christian history. But of curious note, when one of the owners in the house showed me the way to university, we left the house and turned right to go to some icons in a nook right around the front door. The man faced the icon bowed slightly, said some words, and crossed his chest with his hands. Then we turned around and walked in the opposite direction. In all, I find the omnipresence of these icons odd as I thought Jesus forbid the worshiping of idols and they seem to lend towards superstition. But then again that was the impetus for the creation of the Puritan sect of Christianity and other Protestant sects.
The main Christian sects here are Catholic and Orthodox and the family of where I stay is Catholic. The house is two floors and divided between two related families. One family lives on the first floor, where I rent my room, and the second family on the second floor, where they also rent rooms to foreigners. The family on my floor are nice and have two small children one boy 11 and one girl 9. The mother has a strong Palestinian identity while the father is Syrian. They are also first cousins and the mother of the father or the uncle of his wife also lives with them and is Palestinian and was born in the West Bank. She is usually yelling at the kids in a raspy voice. The house is basic and the two parents and grandmother smoke quite a bit, which I felt had this not been Syria but rather the West, this might have been interpreted to be the setting of a trailer park. But the family is considered well off for here with a computer and satellite TV, around which much time is spent, and the father goes hunting every week or two and so far has returned with catches of frogs and birds. He bought a young hunting dog named Lord to go hunting with him in the future. Although the poor dog is usually tied up in a corner of the house all day and then occasionally disappears to the father’s work place.
One morning the little boy was showing me his computer game Grand Theft Auto which is a role playing game where the boy plays the role of a thug in a mafia roaming around the streets of an American city looting and killing people. While the he was enthralled with his game, I watched an Arabic music TV channel with the mother and little girl. I couldn’t help but notice that the recurring motif in these videos was one man singing with a group of 10 or so women dancing around him like dolls. At this moment with the boy enthralled in his game of American imported violence and the girl glued to the TV emitting frivolous, hollow music videos, the surprise and confusion of the juxtaposition of baneful modern creations with the surroundings of the Old City and its distinct culture wore off and I saw how close life here was to back home. I also wondered what effect such harmful images would have on the minds of these two children as they grow up.

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