Sunday, April 22, 2007

Immigration makes America Rich

A friend of mine mentioned to me his feeling that American civilizatoin is in decline. I had similar thoughts before I left the US last fall. But I have come to appreciate certian things about America that I think will still make it stay on top for a while. I've certainly found that the Middle East is not on the incline. And I learned that the one thing the truly keeps America on top is that it is the destination for the world's disillusioned educated and hard-working. It is the immigrants that make America richer than anything else. You see this everywhere. The smart and educated from Syria and Egypt such as doctors and engineers move to the states, add to this the Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, and Eastern Europeans, and you have roughly the best of the world in one country. When those smart, educated people stop immigrating to the states, that's perhaps when we may look for some sort of decline. Maybe in India and China they'll soon start staying as those countries improve. But they aren't ready to do so in Syria and Egypt. Just about every person I asked in Syria to tell me their life goals said it was to leave Syria to Europe or America. A German friend of mine in Syria who taught a German class said all her students with the exception of one were doctors. They were studying German to go an specialize there. I asked why Germany, and she said because the door to America was closed to them. Well.. it is still open to Syrians. But it is much, much more difficult to go to America that people stop trying. And that is our loss, America's loss. And in this case, Germany's gain.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Extremely Ostentatious Kuwaiti Wedding

In other news, I went to a ridiculously ostentatious wedding last Friday. There was a famous Lebanese signer there, Nawal al-Zoghbi, which was preceded, you won't believe it, by a transvestite, and also Lebanese and very famous, who imitates Arab singers. The image of a transvestite entertaining a posh Kuwaiti co-ed wedding party was unfathomable to me before and is very ironic for this conservative gulf state. The party I went to was mixed for men and women. There was another party the previous day just for women. Kuwaitis normally hold two wedding parties separated by gender, one for men and one for women. Just the cost of hiring Nawal al-Zoghbi for both parties was at a discount rate of 20,000 Kuwaiti Dinars = $70K. The total cost for both parties was estimated at around half a million dollars. Now that is ostentatatious consumption.

Volunteering at the Scientific Center

Well, a week ago I was going through a reflective period of where I was in my Fulbright experience. And positive changes have taken place. I dropped out of college and got a job. That's an exaggeration, but I just wanted to say it that way since it is ironic. I stopped going to Arabic classes at Kuwait University and instead go to learn Arabic from my uncle everday at the library where he works. Today, I started volunteering at the scientific center in the aquarium and education departments. The scientific center is mainly an aquarium. I went scuba diving this morning in the main tank with the sharks and fishes. I hadn't dove for about 2 years, since I had trouble getting my buoyancy underwater, but it was a cool experience. I will be helping to clean the tank of fish exrement and other debris using a sunction hose. In the evening I went back to the scientific center and became acquainted with the education dept responsibilities of what they do, explaining things and giving demonstrations for example. It was interesting to working inside the water tank in the morning and then outside in the evening. In one day of working at the scientific center, I've gotten to know more Kuwaitis than in all my 3.5 months prior. And I got to know guys and girls. And I like that the director of the aquarium dept has made it aware to all the Kuwaitis that I am here to learn Arabic and to speak to me in Arabic. That's great, because that is what I've been wanting, an environment to get to know Kuwaiti youth and hear Arabic spoken and speak with them in Arabic. I feel I finally found a daily routine that suits me for the rest of my time in Kuwait.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I've been taking some classes at Kuwait University where I've gotten to know some of the Kuwaitis there. I just spoke to a friend today where I mentioned to him I've been working on a survey to find out the values of Kuwaiti youth to women's rights. I told him some of the sample questions I'll be asking, the first one being do you believe in the equality between men and women. And to my surprise he said no. I didn't know what to say. He graduate from a British high school in Kuwait and we had previously spoken about the different cultural mentalities toward women between Kuwaitis who graduate from Western high schools versus government schools. So I expected that going to a British school where men and women are in mixed classroom environment, would lend itself to the belief in the equality between men and women. But, my friend didn't disagree because he felt men superior to women. Rather, he felt that men and women weren't equal because of creational differences. But, now I will go have dinner with him and his friends.

Wind, Rain, and Hail- What Surprise!!

Kuwait's weather has been very quirky these past few days. It has been storming to a surprising degree that it reminds me of the weather in the American Southeast. Around 2 pm today, the skies opened up and poured profuse and dramatic amounts of rain and, yes, even hail. That is correct, it was hailing in Kuwait, in this desert Persian Gulf country. And yet as fast as the skies poured forth its contents, it just as quickly ceased to give way to bright sunshine and relatively blue skies. While it is known to rain in Kuwait, it usually never does so and with such profusion during the April. Perhaps, Kuwait will be a winner with effects of global warming turning this desert country slowly into more fertile and and green land.


Welcome to my blog about my time in Kuwait. I am funded by a Fulbright Fellowship courtesy of the US Department of State. I write about what I am observing, learning, and perceiving in Kuwait and the Middle East at large. Prior to coming to Kuwait in Dec. 2006, I studied Arabic for 4 months in Damscus, Syria on a Fulbright Language Enhancement Award. I will remain in Kuwait until the end of 2006. I invite you to peruse the contents of my blog whatever your interests may be.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An Archeological Adventure in the Parched Countryside of Damascus- Sept. 2006

At the language center in Damascus University I got to know a British girl studying archeology who mentioned her tutor, or professor, from her home university of St. Andrews was in Syria on an archeological dig. The day after the course session finished, she called to tell me that her tutor wanted her to find someone who spoke English to come help with the archeology work and who also spoke some Arabic to translate between the British team and the Bedouins working for them. She asked me if I would like to go and that it would be for 3 or 4 days and the site was located in the countryside 3 hours by car from Damascus. I had to make a quick decision as I would have to leave the next day. I was hesitant at first to accept as I felt I wasted my time in the university course and wanted to immediately start studying Arabic with the private tutor, but after some friends mentioned it would be a unique opportunity I accepted the offer. I wasn’t so interested in the archeology work or seeing the ruins, as I had been to Syria before and seen the major ruins; instead I was more interested in the chance to interact with the Bedouins; not to mention the peace and fresh air of the countryside was a nice break from the crowded and loud capital. One thing I learned from the experience is that I am not much of a city person but instead prefer the suburbs, a cross between the country and city lives.
The whole trip ended up lasting for 5 nights. I left on Sunday Sept. 17 and returned on Friday Sept. 22. I took a bus from Damascus to Hama, a major city located two hours away by car. I was delayed leaving as when I first went to the bus station I learned I needed my passport to by a bus ticket, an odd requirement, and so I had to return home to get it. In Hama, a taxi was arranged to take me to the archeological site in the countryside about an hour away. I spoke Arabic with the taxi driver for most of the trip. We had a little difficulty finding the village where the British team stayed as it was dark and there wasn’t much signage. Eventually, two Bedouins on the side of the road showed us the way to the house of the British in the village of Homé.
I arrived about 9:30 pm and was quickly introduced to the team. There was Dr. Mary Mayfield or the modeera, the Arabic word for director, who led the team and was a lecturer in archeology who specialized in Byzantine studies from a famous British university. However, she was an American who had lived in England over 30 years but was married to an English professor in Latin or Greek who had retired from the same famous university. Then there was the second in command, Lukas the Austrian, who was Dr. Mayfield’s postdoc and had received his PhD in Archeology with her. Then there was Bruce the New Zealander who had come to Britain for the specific reason to row on the famed university crew team and in the meantime picked up a Masters in something related to surveying. And lastly there was Alex, the only English person on the British team, who I assisted in his surveying work and had recently completed a Masters in Archeology. However, he was hired by Dr. Mayfield through his father’s surveying company to do the survey work. Among them, only Lukas could speak some Arabic. Even though Dr. Mayfield had been coming yearly to work on the same site and was now in her 9th year, she spoke very little Arabic. However, she could read ancient Greek, Latin, French, and I think Aramaic. The postdoc Lukas was also amazing in being able to speak several languages, maybe around 10. At one point, Dr. Mayfield remarked how her last vacation was over 20 years ago and consisted of staying at a Greek monastery and reading ancient Greek texts in the library. These archeologists were certainly an interesting class of intellectuals.
I was given a tour of the house by Lukas. It was simple and Dr. Mayfield had rented the house from a young Bedouin family with two little girls, about 2 and 4 years old, for the week and half that she and her team would be there for $200. While Dr. Mayfield was here, the family was staying in a tent they pitched next door. The kitchen had a sink with no faucet. The bathroom had no shower and the toilet was located outside and was an Arabic type, i.e. a hole in the ground. The bathroom contained a rusted metal container with a faucet which was filled with water from a well outside. Drinking water was brought in from outside the village. Showering consisted of filling a bucket with water and throwing it over one’s head, not very thorough at all and my white towel would show the brown dust that I had collected from a day in the field but had not washed off. Also, as I had not brought enough pairs of socks for my stay of 5 nights as I was expecting to leave two days earlier, I had the experience of hand washing my dirty socks and leaving them to dry in the sun. The conditions over all were quite primitive in my opinion. There were mosquitoes and flies but luckily there were mosquito nets for the sleeping bags. The house, which was more or less a concrete box, had this unique ability to stay cool during the day when the temperature would soar and remain warm at night when the weather would become very cool and windy. The traditional beehive houses of the region, one chambered conical mud-brick structures with thick walls to keep the house at a constant temperature, had the same quality of being impervious to the heat of summer days and cold of winter nights; although they are gradually being replaced by the favored concrete box. I slept outside for two nights and then inside the house as it was too cold at night sometimes.
But during dinner the first evening, I was quickly drawn into the affairs of the team and began becoming acquainted with the Bedouins amongst whom that Dr. Mayfield had situated herself. Mary wanted to rent a mechanical digger to dig and find an ancient water channel buried underground. She was researching the water system of an abandoned 5th century Byzantine village called al-Anderine. There were two Bedouins competing with each other in intriguing for the hire of a mechanical digger. It was a quest of how low could they go while still taking a nice cut of the rent.
The two competing Bedouins were Fayad and Abu Sultan. Fayad was about 25 and Mary’s assistant in the field and the driver for the workers. Abu Sultan, aka Abu Sharky for his shark-like business tactics, was a rotund thirty something father of three, the oldest being 10 or 11, and owned the house next door. His house was certainly the nicest among those in the village and during my stay there he had a big flat-screen TV delivered to his house. I learned he and Mary had a bit of a falling out. In all the previous years that Mary came to al-Anderine, she rented Abu Sultan’s house and built a separate toilet/shower facilities on his property for the use of her team when she comes. However, Abu Sultan wanted her to sign a contract and she rebuffed and he decided not to rent her his house for this year. He also told Mary that she would have to pay $170 in rent if she wanted her team to use the bathroom facilities that she built with her grant money on his property. The resolution was that only Mary could use the facilities but the rest of the team could not.
But back to the intrigue of hiring the digger, eventually Abu Sharky won two days later to the dismay of Fayad who I was told by Bruce and Lukas was trying to make last minute calls when he found out Sharky had won. Yet the intrigue of the digger was amusing considering the Fayad and Abu Sultan were related. Fayad’s father was the brother of Abu Sultan and the owner of the house we were staying in. It would have seemed they should have cooperated with each other but such was not the case.
The workers hired by Mary came from this extended family and then three other individuals, a middle-aged man and his two teenage nephews of 15 and 16 years, from another village. The latter exhibited a much different character, one of much less avarice and good work ethic than exhibited by Fayad and his relatives who were preoccupied with money and were lazier in the field. All in all, the workers were mostly in their late teens or twenties, although the youngest was 12 or 13. They came from Bedouins who had settled down and became farmers. I learned that they and their families had fields somewhere where they grew wheat and had pomegranate trees. They would take the wheat to Hama and sell it to the government. They all claimed to be poor and were thankful for the opportunity that Mary brought to them for they don’t have much else to do for unemployment is high. But poor is a respective term, they certainly had homes, clothes, sufficient food, satellite TV, and cars. I think the main reason that they are poor is that there meager resources are stretched over large families with most households when I asked containing six to ten children. Many of the people were illiterate even though there was a school across the street which was small and consisted of perhaps one or two rooms and a basketball court without baskets. I found out that the quality of teaching was poor as one day when I was in the field some schoolboys were passing home quite early at around 11 am. I thought they were skipping school, but they told me that their teacher had decided to dismiss them early. And such was the same with Fayed’s memory of school.
Although since Fayed was the oldest, he tended to suffer more as he didn’t have the oversight and care of older siblings, for now Fayed and the other older brothers make sure the youngest two learn to read and write. In fact one brother may be sent to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city for further study, which does show that with thoughtfulness, planning, and care these Bedouins are able to uplift their financial, although admittedly it is very limited.
Yet, a little anecdote will show that compared to the poor in, for example, India, the situation of these Bedouins is comfortable, although lacking in opportunity. One of Fayed’s sister required a kidney transplant a few years ago. So the father arranged for the sick girl and him to fly to India where they purchased a new kidney for her from a poor Indian. Now is she is fine and in moderate health. Thus, there are different classes of poverty and these Bedouins were among upper class poor.
Returning now though to when I arrived into this world, I introduced myself to the various Bedouins as being half-American and half-Kuwaiti. And to my surprise did my tie to Kuwait make me popular with them, especially with Fayed who dreamed of going to Kuwait. He has an aunt who is married to a Kuwaiti and lives in Jahra in Kuwait, which makes sense as Jahra is known as having a lot of Bedouin Kuwaitis. Afterwards, various people who I didn’t know would ask me if I was the Kuwaiti as word must have spread, probably through Fayed.
The next day we woke up at 6 am at around dawn, had breakfast, and headed out to the field. The team was well-equipped and had the main room of the house converted into their command center with laptops, drawings, and various other things. It was a five minute drive from the village to the site at al-Anderine. Mary had rented a compact blue Hyundai that was too low to the ground for the off-road driving that she did and was consequently slightly damaged. I wonder how much of her deposit she had returned in the end. The car was absolutely the filthiest I had ever seen, being completely covered with dust inside and out. I would ride out with the team in the Hyundia while the workers and maybe Lukas would go in Fayed’s pick-up truck.
The work of the Bedouins mostly consisted of digging for underground water channels that led from the reservoirs that the Byzantines had built to provide water to their city and fields. There were two reservoirs, one north of the city and the other south of city, or more correctly the village that was al-Anderine as Mary reminded me. Archeologists like to argue about the differences between cities and villages. At the time when the village was inhabited 1500 years ago, the land was very fertile and al-Anderine was known for its grapes. However, today the land is hard-baked earth and dust, but still farmable. The dramatic difference between how plentiful the water was in the past versus today can be illustrated by the depths of the wells. The ancient wells in the village were dug to a depth of 11 meters while today the wells are dug to a depth of 77 meters. Although I was told by some of the elder Bedouins that just 50 years ago the land was much moister, and Lukas mentioned something that cotton farming in this region had dramatically decreased the water table. As a result, Lukas said cotton farming was banned in the region but that some farmers still tried to grow cotton by hiding it on the inside portion of a field of another crop such as sunflowers.
Nevertheless, the coolness of the night would be traded for the heat of the day between 10 and 11 am as the sun rose. We would work until around 2pm and head back for lunch and a break. Lunch was the main meal of the day. Then we would return at 4 pm and stay until sunset at 6:30 pm. The work I did was boring and uninteresting. I was helping Alex develop survey maps or grids of the area, an important aspect of archeology, in order to determine where things are in relation to each other and where things were discovered. Hence, I had to carry a pole with an infrared scope at the top to various corners of a grid that would reflect a beam to Alex’s instrument at a base station and tell him the exact position of where the pole was in relation to the instrument. Once the grids were mapped out, he would use an instrument called a magnetometer to explore if any ruins were buried underground. I think the technique is similar to magnetic resonance imaging of the body. The instrument would give him a reading of the magnetic quality of the earth below it. Different soils and rocks have different intrinsic magnetic qualities. And since the black basalt used by the Byzantines in constructing their water channels and the buildings of their village gave a very high magnetic reading in relation to the natural earth around it, Alex could use the magnetometer to determine if anything of interest was buried underneath. Consequently, after taking sequential measures of the ground, he could draw up an image using his data showing where a water channel was buried as it would appear as a black line in the relatively light-grey image.
It was during my work that I enjoyed interacting with the Bedouins. The site of the ruins is not fenced off in anyway and the surrounding areas are farmland or grazing areas for sheep. Every now and then Alex and I would be approached by Bedouins inviting us to tea or asking us about our work. Although, one family of farmers were Kurds and one of the men was immaculately dressed and clean. Some of the Bedouins were settled farmers and others were still nomads like their ancestors, moving their flocks of sheep to different areas for grazing. I met one shepherd boy who was about 14 and another who was about 22 and said I was the first foreigner he had ever met.
Many of these people would ask me about Robert. He was the tutor of the British girl who had been searching who arranged for my travel to al-Anderine. I found out he was a young professor who was the professor of the Arabic Department at St. Andrews University and had interviewed and spoken with various people in the area in order to write up a history of al-Anderine. He was so appreciated by the Bedouins, that one colleague mentioned jokingly that he was their god. Funnily, Fayed mentioned he could teach me classical Arabic as he had taught it to Robert and weakly uttered a sentence or two in it. It was of course an attempt to take advantage of me since. That he knew classical Arabic or taught it to Robert were both blatant lies which he quickly dropped when I remarked that Robert knows how to read and write implying how Fayed could have taught him that while he himself is illiterate. Although I never met Robert as he left al-Anderine the day I arrived and I later realized, as he told me, that I was something of his replacement; but a far inadequate one at that when it came to conversing with the locals.
Nevertheless, the day the mechanical digger arrived I was put to work for Mary translating between the driver and her. She probably could have done without me just using sign language. We attracted much attention and three middle-aged Bedouin men came by to see what was happening. I was amazed again when they told me they each had about 10 children. I also realized that Bedouins age very fast, looking much older than they really are.
Abu Sultan, aka Sharky, came out to supervise the digger that had he arranged to come. He asked me at the end of the work to tell Mary to pay him $30 for sitting in his car or standing with his long flowing white robe around his rotund corpse and watching the work being done, while the normal workers were being paid $10 a day for digging in the heat of the sun. It was during this time that I learned that countryside here was something of the Wild West in Syria and how Abu Sultan’s avarice endangered his life and cemented his reputation in my mind as a real shark.
Abu Sultan recounted to me the following story. Three years ago or so, he had upset three people in neighboring village. He claimed of course he had done nothing to provoke them, but I found out from his brother who rented us his house that it was over money matters. Then one day, the three men sprayed Abu Sultan’s pick-up truck, with him, his wife, and baby child in the front seat, with fire from Kalashnikovs or AK-47s. Abu Sultan was unhurt but his wife took in two or three bullets but later recovered. He was reluctant to get the police involved, I was told by Mary, as probably he probably had dirt on his hands as well. The perpetrators fled from the authorities and ran off to Saudi Arabia. Abu Sultan told me that would kill them one day. I asked him why and replied because of the principle of a slap for a slap. At the end of his story, he pulled out a hang gun in its holster from the glove compartment of his pick-up truck and showed it to me. I was little taken aback by the gun but it was reasonable for him to have it considering the attempt on his life. It was a revolver and he opened up the cylindrical chamber to show me that it was loaded and ready to go with lead bullets. When I told Mary and the others about it they jokingly replied that they have to pay him now or else. Abu Sultan also mentioned he had a Kalashnikov at home, and I later found out that most of the other families do as well. Yet for some reason I just don’t trust Bedouins with guns so much. Perhaps a look at Yemen’s constant intertribal deadly conflicts would explain why.
At the end of the day when Mary was paying the digger, I will never forget the image of Abu Sultan driving his pick-up truck to where she standing a little bit away with a big smile on his face and his moustache and right hand raised sliding his thumb and fingers in a gesture referring to money while shouting out the window to me the word business.
Nevertheless, the week passed by quietly. The mechanical digger didn’t end up finding the water channel that was shown in Alex’s map of the magnetic data probably because it was too deep. But in another location where the water channel was buried shallower in the ground, it was easily found and recorded. Although as the heat of the day was tiring me, I began asking myself what the point of all this was. After all they were just burying the canals up again after they discovered it and their purpose according to Mary was to simply record what they found. Yet there were much more interesting ruins than this site in my opinion.
My archeological adventure was made more interesting by a layer of rivalry and clashing egos between Mary and the director of the German archeological team, also a woman, who were excavating a large house in the village. The German team was better funded than Mary as one of their patrons included BMW. For example they had a Land Rover which was much better suited to the terrain. Contact between the German team and us was nearly non-existent. Each director thought the other’s projects were useless or wild-goose chases. As a result, when the German director asked for one hour or more of magnetometry work in exchange for Mary’s request to use the digger they hired, Mary declined. But Alex noted that she freely offered his expertise to the third archeologist, the director of the Syrian team, the least funded of all.
It seemed most of the strain between the two women was a result of Marlie for at least the German director was trying to reach out to her. Yet both were women in their sixties with established reputations as experts in their similar fields. As Lukas told me, the excavation at al-Anderine was the German director’s project who, when it began about ten years ago, had asked Mary’s husband if he knew a young archeologist who wanted to share in the venture. He recommended Mary who quickly entered into a strained relationship with the German which was misfortunate for her as it was her original project and not Mary’s yet has to suffer for Mary’s boorish behavior.
The poor relations were exacerbated as well since Lukas, Mary’s chief student, was to move in month to Germany and take up a post as an assistant professor with the German director, Mary’s rival, as his new boss. Thus, Lukas had to diplomatically handle the carelessness of Mary towards his future new boss. For example, Alex, Bruce, and I wanted a tour of the site before we had left and the German director had offered to give us one. However, Marlie would not commit since there was still last-minute work being done, but did not bother to inform her colleague that we would not be available for the time she offered to us or when we would have time. Thus it was left to Lukas to quietly use my phone, the only one with credit in the end, to tell his future boss that we wouldn’t be making the tour at the scheduled time.
In the end, on the last day there Friday morning, Alex and I were sitting in the house, as we had finished our work, while the rest were in the field, when the German director pulled up to take us out for a tour. We sat a bit in the house and drank some tea while the she complained about Mary’s behavior and the rift between them. She then took us out in her Land Rover for a tour since in her words, “Mary doesn’t know anything about al-Anderine.” She was what I imagined to be the quintessential German with her accent, mannerisms, and tall stature with blonde hair. At first I thought how lucky Alex and I were to get a tour from the tour of the sites from the actual archeologist who excavated them and would later write the history of the site to be used by future guides. However, it was rather rushed and dry and was belittled by her for not knowing anything about the architecture 5th century Christian churches. In her defense she presumed I was an archeology student and I was probably asking basic questions that she thought I should know. But her exclamatory remark, “You really don’t know anything,” was not tactful at all and she was much too overcautious with Alex and me around the site.
We returned again to the site later without the German director but with the rest of the team as they wanted to see the site as well. The main things to see consisted of an Umayyad bath, a Roman bath, a cathedral, a garrison, and some houses. It was not at all impressive as it was, well, in ruins. I learned all the interesting things the archeologists find such as mosaics, paintings, or loose inscriptions are taken to be exhibited in the museum in Hama and so what is left are large blocks of basalt placed in different monotonous arrangements. Mary told an account of when she went to the museum with Abu Sultan, who was helping her to carry some artifacts, the museum director told her not to bring people like that back into the museum. I suppose some city people look down on Bedouins or people from the countryside or maybe he could just sense Abu Sultan’s shark-like business tactics.
Yet between the two visits to the site, Mary conducted the payday ceremonies. As the time drew near, a crowd was gathering and looking at Mary with expectant eyes. She sat down behind a plastic table with Lukas beside her and wads of money in her hand. Then she would call each person to come forth from the crowd, receive their wage, and sign their names in her notebook cataloguing her expense. The illiterate ones signed with slashed lines. I took pictures of the ceremony and in just about everyone there was Fayed kneeling beside Mary watching the money being transacted. Alex or Bruce even remarked how Abu Sultan’s sons, Sultan and Salmaan, were staring fixated at the amounts of money. Perhaps someday they too will be making shady business deals as their father.
After everything was packed and ready to go, we said our goodbyes to the Bedouins and departed for Damascus. Bruce was lucky and drove with a team member who had come up the day before. He was absent throughout the week because he was with his wife in Damascus who was having an operation. Unfortunately, Lukas, Alex, and I were stuck riding with Mary in one of the worst, nerve-racking car trips ever. The car had yet to be cleaned and thus the inside was filled with dust. Driving with the windows down made things worse as it would just kick up the dust in the back seat, where Alex and I were sitting, and made breathing unpleasant. Additionally, Mary was a horrible driver and refused to let Lukas drive. Her excuse was that only she was insured to drive the car even though Lukas asked to be included. It was her way to exert control and retain power. Lukas often complained that Mary would disagree with whatever he suggested.
The car ride was made worse by Mary’s timidity on the road. She was slow to react and when she did react it was sudden and dangerous. For example she would break suddenly if she spotted another vehicle 50 yards in front of her, and she would sometimes break too rapidly in the fast lane when cars where tail gating us since she was too slow. Lukas had his head almost constantly turned around from his place in the front passenger seat to let Mary know if she could change lanes. We were driving so slow that even the coach buses were passing us on the Hama-Damascus highway. Thus I would have arrived Damascus sooner had she dropped me off in Hama and I took a bus. In the end it took us four and a half hours to get to Damascus when it should have taken us three hours. Bruce and the other driver made it in two and a half hours. Yet, in the middle of the ordeal, Mary complained how when she first moved to England she failed the driver’s examination twice before passing. Her driving certainly did not vindicate her complaint. I hope she gives up driving at some point. Throughout the ordeal, I could not relax as my nerves were on end and there was too much dust. I subsequently ended up coming down with a cold and spent the next week recovering. Overall, the experience was memorable and I am glad I went; although I will not do it again. I now know that at least I don’t want to be an archeologist. Yet I wonder at times how much relations between east and west have changed from the past till the present. Mary’s relations with the Bedouins seemed strained. The owner of the house she rented complained for example how Mary did not understand them but that at least I did. And Bruce and Alex wondered whether Mary just saw the Bedouins as a means to an end. Yet the Bedouins of the village of Homé which we stayed in had a poor reputation. The German director told a story from the first year of the project of al-Anderine, when she stayed there, that a man had taken the wages paid to a widowed woman with three children, who had done the cooking for the German team, and spent it in one night on a dancer. The German was of course furious and she never returned to the village after that year, instead building her own house near the site al-Anderine. Nevertheless, the Bedouins of Homé certainly count on the money that Marlie brings in.

The Day the US Embassy was Attacked in Damascus, Sept. 2006

You may not have heard about the attack on the US embassy here in Damascus as it was unsuccessful and therefore only made the news for a day or so. The day was September 12. I was in class at the university when at 10:20 am, not soon after the attack started, I received a text message from an American I know at the embassy that there was fighting near the embassy with gunfire and to therefore stay away from the embassy. I felt so strange, not knowing what to think. I just thought to myself, okay, I’m in class, I’m in a safe place, so nothing to worry about. I wasn’t scared at all, but I was worried for the Americans and especially the young marines at the embassy. I wondered if the embassy would still exist in hour or maybe if it was a minor incident.
In the class break, I told the other American there in a different class about it and he freaked out. He said we had to get home right away because we are exposed to danger at the university. I couldn’t have disagreed with him more. He then went frantically searching for the director of the Arabic Language Institute. I later learned from other students in the class that he is paranoid and worries too much. He eventually ended up staying in class. I had two more text messages sent saying there was violence near the embassy and to stay away. My contact never said the embassy was attacked itself, only that violence was nearby, so I had hope it was nothing, until I read the actual news story at the end of day. During the class breaks, the other students were saying all kinds of rumors. The Japanese person in my class said his embassy told him that the US embassy was in flames, which was false. I realized I just had to wait till the end of the day and read the news report online for the truth. In the end, I learned the attack was stopped and I was happy and thankful. No Americans were hurt and one Syrian guard was killed. I later learned that an American teacher here on a US exchange program was sadly caught in the crossfire and decided to return back to the US. She may have been standing in the line to get into the embassy which starts outside along the street. Had the attack been successful, I probably would have been told by the organization administering my scholarship to study Arabic here to leave and I didn’t want to think about that as I really enjoy living and studying in Damascus.
In truth, I wasn’t very surprised that the attack occurred as the US embassy is not well protected. In Cairo, the roads around the embassy were sealed off and the embassy lied inside a think concrete wall. However, the US embassy here is small and lies right beside a major arterial roadway. In my first days when I had to go to the embassy to get a notarized paper to register at the university, I remember thinking to myself how an attack could be easily carried out. I feel safe in Damascus except when at the US embassy.

A Description of My Arabic Study in Damascus- Fall 2006

My initial plan was to study Arabic at the Arabic Language Center in Damascus University. Courses are four weeks long with a one week break in between courses. I placed into the beginner three course. There are three levels of beginner courses, three of intermediate, and two of advanced. I was rather surprised at how low a class I was placed into but then again I hadn’t studied Arabic for a year and a quarter. I was the second best student in the class and found it very easy. I had four hours of class in the morning and an average of one hour of homework afterwards. I was quite disappointed with the slowness of the pace that I began reviewing on my own the Arabic books I brought with me. I was later recommended by someone at the US Embassy to contact a certain person who runs an institute that provides excellent private tutors. And so I did and decided to take a tutor after the class ends. The tutor is a 25 year old graduate student in Islam and education and from Aleppo. He comes to my room to tutor me five days a week for three hours a day.
I don’t mind the solitary of private tutoring for it is the best Arabic instruction I am receiving. Although the university classes were nice in helping to get know different people. My class there had 11 people and was international with various people from Europe, two of them with family ties to Syria. There was one 19 year old Indian girl from Zambia who just married her first cousin who is from England and was educated at Oxford University in law or finance. I suppose growing up in a western society and being educated at one of the top universities does not always change risky cultural traditions. But by far the most interesting person to me in the class was an Iranian who worked at the Iranian embassy.
However, I meet plenty of different foreigners in Bab Toma and I have a nice group of German friends. One of the surprising things I noticed was that most of the Europeans studying Arabic here were German or Italian and a significant majority of the foreign students in general were female. But I suppose it is due to women showing a greater interest in languages. It is also an interesting fact in comparison to the Arabs of the area who would have thought their women incapable or unsuited to traveling to a different country on their own for studying.

A Description of Sectarian Relations in Syria

Relations between Christians and Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups appear good and well, but there lurk beneath the surface acrid whisperings of a strong hatred among Christians for Muslims. Quite a few of my other European friends here tell me how their Christian host families have complained to them about their dislike and even hatred for Muslims. One account involved the father praising Bush since he kills Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such hatred is not surprising as Syria’s different religions and ethnic groups tend live in segregated neighborhoods or villages. This village is Syriac Christian while that is Circassian or this neighborhood is Druze and the other is Alawite.
For instance, in my Arabic class there was a Syrian Circassian girl who had grown up in Sweden but had family here. I did not know anything about the Circassians and she explained to me that they were a group of Russian Muslims who had emigrated from Russia to Syria in the last half of the 19th century and that they had their own language and a distinct culture from the Arabs. The truth of this still bore in her Russian appearance. She explained that because of the cultural differences between Circassian Muslims and Arab Muslims, the Circassians had a tendency to marry within their community and live in Circassian enclaves or towns. One of the major differences includes the treatment of women. Circassian women have more freedom in dress and marriage than their Arab counterparts which makes for difficulties for an Arab man, accustomed to more subservient women, married to a Circassian woman. Thus, they tended to keep their Russian features such as their pale white skin and lighter hair color. Also, the Circassians are only present in certain parts of the country which included Damascus and the Golan Heights. During the 1973 war with Israel, it was some of their villages and towns that were destroyed by the Israelis.
And so at times I wonder what does it mean when Syrians constantly repeat that there is no difference between Muslims and Christians and that they are like brothers. Perhaps unity and fraternity for them means practicing a tolerance for each other’s presence while decrying each other in their separate circles. That is what was described at least by a Christian Jordanian-American here on a visit who I chatted with in a juice bar. Although the family I stay with show no hatred toward Muslims. In fact the Palestinian mother is very anti-American and speaks of how bad President Bush is and the mess he has caused in the Middle East. She has asked me about my politic opinions but I try to avoid saying anything.
But at a later time at the same juice bar as I met the Jordanian-American, which I frequent about everyday, I received a much more vocal and acrid opinion of sectarian relations by one of the workers. The workers who run this stall are Kurdish and related to each other. I had been coming to it without conversing with them when one day, when I was the only one there, this worker came out with a rather shocking and virulent opinion of Arabs. He started saying that Arabs and Muslims are terrorists and then he pulled out a picture of Jesus from his wallet and told me this a good prophet and that Muhammad is not as good because he brought Islam which brought terrorism. I then asked him if he was Muslim and he said yes. I was then really surprised for it is known that Kurds have poor relations with Arabs but I didn’t expect him to attack Islam for it is a part of his own identity. He then also told me that he does not go to mosque anymore and prays in his home instead, because he did not like that the religious leaders in the mosque would use their pulpit to attack America and Great Britain and make other political comments. Next, he started complaining about the government and how it steals money from people and made slurping noises to express how it sucks them dry. I found it very odd that he wasn’t afraid to say any of these things to me since Syria has a very strong secret police and under Hafez al-Assad, the old president, no one dared to say a thing against the government. However, with his son, Basher al-Assad, coming to power in 2000 the ability to say such things is probably what people mean here when they say there is more freedom. Either way, the Kurds seem to suffer from a real identity crisis as Syrians and Muslims.
This was further explained to me when at a café I was sitting with a Kurdish youth who spoke English and I told him what the Kurdish man from the juice bar told me and asked him to explain his opinions. He then told me that many Kurds feel that Islam was something forced upon them by the Arabs in the past and that the idea of rejecting Islam is especially popular among the Kurdish youth today. I next asked him if he felt Syrian and replied by saying that he wished to be Syrian but felt he didn’t because of the poor treatment of Kurds as a minority group. He told me how he used to search online to meet other minority groups such as Basques in Spain to talk with them and share experiences as members of minority groups. So he was delighted to know that I was a Bahá’í and a minority both ethnically and religiously. He also recounted how he felt treated as an exotic specimen by some foreigners. He told the story of how in bed with an American, for he has a penchant for bedding foreign girls, she looked into his green eyes and remarked how she could see the mountains in his eyes, referring to the luscious tree covered mountains of his Kurdish homeland, to which all of us at the table laughed. The Kurdish guy felt cheapened by the experience as he felt he became an item of touristic fancy.

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.

Reflections from the Beginning of My Stay in Damascus, Syria- Fall 2006

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.