Ten weeks have now passed that I have been in Damascus, Syria and I wish now to recount some of the memorable instances and general impressions of my stay thus far. I arrived Damascus on Aug. 17 from Kuwait and contrary to my mother’s claim that the plane would be empty due to the emanating fright and insecurity from the war in Lebanon, it and the airport was full of tourists from Saudi and the rest of the Gulf, the men dressed in their distinguishing long white robes. As I left the arrival gate I was confronted with the sight of a long row of what appeared to be Sri Lankan or Indian women dressed in saris who I presumed to be like their sisters in the Gulf, coming to the Middle East to work as servants or maids in the homes of Arab families. Such a sight was intriguing as Syria is considered a poor country, and poorer than Egypt where the rich took poor Egyptians as servants. But perhaps the Syrian rich were looking to follow the custom of their Gulf neighbors also bringing servants from the Philippines and Indionesia.
The weather was hot when I arrived. But the Middle East is not all desert with picturesque sand dunes as many would imagine in the West. So it was not unbearably hot like in Kuwait and the Gulf where it is desert but rather similar to the heat back home in Atlanta. Rather Syria is a very fertile country and Damascus is surrounded by farmland and has plenty of fresh water. In fact, many from the Saudi and the Gulf come to Syria to escape the summer heat in their own countries; although their presence is resented by many local Syrians for the Gulfies reckless habits or perhaps out of envy. Many come by driving here and their cars are some of the nicest on the streets. I’ve taken to reading the license plates to see which Gulf country they come from. The cars stand out as Syrian cars are mostly cheap and sometimes unheard of Asian brands. A Kia or Hyundai is considered a very nice car here and the owner would be considered as part of the upper-middle class. But I was told that this summer was unusually hot for Syria.
My arrival to Damascus must be understood in the context of the tense political climate of the region at the time. I came on the heels of a brief summer war between Hizbullah in Lebanon and Israel, east of Damascus, that inflamed Syrians and worsened relations between the US and Syria. Additionally, there was the ongoing conflict in Iraq east of Syria and the daily death tolls beaming on Arabic news channels. But the reason why Syrians are the most vexed out of their Arab neighbors about these conflicts is because Syria has become a place of refuge from these conflicts. By the time I arrived, Damascus had swelled with a fresh intake of Lebanese refugees and also been the home of longer residing and continually present Iraqi refugees. Thus, the Lebanese and Iraqis walking the streets of Damascus are constant reminders of the ramifications of US foreign policy in the region.
For me, I felt unsure in my first days here how I would be received. I felt at times that I was coming to a hostile country, a feeling fueled by the media coverage of the Hizbullah-Israel war and its aftermath in the US and the kind of reaction I was receiving from people when they learned of to where I would be traveling. One notable instance occurred when a middle-age woman, eyes swelling with tears, told me how she had a boyfriend in the marines who was killed in the 1983 suicide bombing of the marines’ barracks in Beirut and was upset to see another young man heading off to the same region. Although I constantly reminded her, others, and myself that I had three things safeguarding me: I was not a soldier, I was not working for the US government, and I was an Arab-American student. But considering my slight hesitance to coming to Syria, I knew that most other Americans with plans of studying Arabic in Syria would cancel them or choose a different country for study. And sure enough such is what I heard at the Arabic Language Center at Damascus University and I have met very few Americans here, about only 5.
As a result, I was confused and frustrated as I didn’t want to stand out as a foreigner at this time and just wanted to blend in. I was inundated with various images of the leader of Hizbullah, Hasan Nasrallah, and his organization’s ubiquitous yellow flag with an arm raised holding a Kalashnikov as they were plastered everywhere in the city from cars to shops to buildings, a marked difference from when I visited Syria a year and a half ago in spring 2005. One person even had a picture of the leader as the background of his cell phone, and a sweet shop made a Hizbullah cake which a Swiss friend later bought to celebrate her birthday, a very poor choice in my opinion. Nevertheless, while I may pass as Syrian (several times have people asked me for directions) my Arabic is not so proficient and I do not know the local dialect. But my tensions were eased as several Syrians told me that they make a difference between American politics and American people and welcomed me to Syria. Although an American girl who was in Damascus during the war in Lebanon told me that at the time some people asked her in an accusatory and unwelcoming way what she was doing here and why she didn’t go back home.
Nevertheless, I moved into the Christian quarter of the old city and discovered it to be absent of the Hizbullah flags and images so common else where but did have a Lebanese flag flying above one of the streets, probably as a way to show solidarity with Lebanon without supporting an Islamic movement. The girls here also dressed much more freely than in Cairo and I was astounded at first at how pretty they were. Although in discovering the area around where I live in the old city, I was waking along one of the main boulevards through the old city and crossed some kind of invisible line where I then ended up in an area with shops heavily decorated with Hizbullah flags and the women nearly all hijabis with their overcoats. I realized that I had probably crossed from the Christian quarter into a Muslim quarter and that the self-segregation of the inhabitants of the old city created markedly different environments, something like the different ethnic neighborhoods in the US.
Also interestingly, when I first went to the souqs, or traditional markets, in the old city, I couldn’t help but notice large banners in English on one side and Arabic on the other decrying Israel and the international community for the war in Lebanon. There were also various banners hailing Iran and their good relations with Syria. A few weeks later I noticed that posters of Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, saying love and respect for Venezuela in Arabic were put up around the city in ordinary places such as at bus stops. I wondered amusingly if Syria, Iran, and Venezuela formed some kind of I hate America club. However, I learned the posters of Chavez were put up in preparation for a visit from Chavez to Damascus.