“Syria Sees Influx of Arabic Language Students,” by Peter Kenyon

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Peter Kenyon, NPR

Ashley Milco of Chicago (left) and Kara Francis of Wilmington, Del., are two of the growing number of Americans venturing to Syria to study Arabic.

Weekend Edition Saturday, April 12, 2008 · Syria may be a largely closed society, but students from Europe and America are flocking there to study Arabic. They're drawn by the inexpensive tuition and housing rates, as well as the relative purity of the Syrian dialect, which is considered close to classical Arabic.

At Damascus University, not far from the heart of the capital, students gather in small groups or study alone. Snatches of conversations in English, German, French, Italian and Japanese, in addition to Arabic, resound outside the school's Higher Language Institute. With the increased demand for Arabic speakers in the United States and elsewhere since 2001, Syrian language programs expect their enrollment of foreign students to keep rising.

Many of these young men and women are finding Syria to be a far different place than the rogue state and sponsor of terrorism it might have been depicted as back home.

"I love it," says Anis Turner, a British student who arrived in Damascus seven months ago. "It's a beautiful, beautiful city. Some people, maybe from the West, when they come here they think it's a bit chaotic, but Syria for me is the safest country I've ever been in. I feel safer in Damascus than I do feel in London."

American students Kara Francis and Ashley Milco initially signed up for regular classes in Arabic, but they switched to a tutor because they felt it helped them learn the fairly difficult language more rapidly. Both are pleased at the complete lack of anti-Americanism among the Syrians they have met so far.

"Every time I tell a Syrian that I'm American, they just get really excited and happy," says Francis, 25.

Politics are usually discussed, she adds, but not for long.

"You know, they say that they don't like [President] Bush, and I tell them I don't either," she laughs. "Syrians can't really talk about their own politics very much. So the topic of conversation moves away from politics to things like family and schooling."

But the difficulties that young Syrians face is an eye-opener for foreign students. If Syria was hoping that these language programs would amount to a charm offensive among impressionable young Western students, the reality is quite a bit more complicated. Francis says living in Syria, while exciting, has given her a more sobering view of the country than most visitors get.

"I think it's easy to idealize this place before you come, and it's easy to walk around as a tourist, especially, and think that it's great, it's lovely, the old city is charming, the people are so friendly and welcoming," she says. "But if you spend a little bit longer here you see the really kind of — the bad things about this place. You see the poverty — you see the way the regime's policies have trickled down to the populace."

Francis, who left an entry-level journalism job in Washington, D.C., to pursue her language studies, says she has mixed feelings about the country.

"I'm conflicted, because I really want to like it. I really want to enjoy being here. But it is hard, and I think it's irresponsible when journalists and other people come and walk away and talk about how wonderful it is," she says. "I think it's being here as a woman. That's certainly a difficult thing to get used to. And seeing how Syrian men treat you as a foreign woman, that's difficult."

Comments (46)

annie said:

I was a student in Damascus for five years, and I disagree with Francis. Syria IS wonderful. Syrians are wonderful. The country is far from perfect and as a Western woman you have to be extremely reserved because of the image men have of us.
So ? Where is the problem ? They are different.
As for the regime’s policies, you know when you come here what is what.
When you look at the other countries surrounding Syria, you can count your blessings : no war, safety, water, electricity, transportation; people are poor, true and that they could use some extra income would be an understatement. But they have dignity, class, manners; there is solidarity between them. They have so many values we have lost in the West.

April 13th, 2008, 6:21 am


wizart said:

Thanks Annie and thank you Josh for a wonderful piece there.

I’ve met a number of students studying Arabic in Damascus. They often give out English lessons as well to supplement their income. They are able to rent a room often in the Christian quarter and enjoy their summer discovering ancient civilizations, a versatile language and a culture that values inner strength more than materialistic baggage.

Nice website about Syria Annie.

Are you from Belgium?

April 13th, 2008, 6:49 am


Zenobia said:

THe rest of the article…is three paragraphs. I am not sure why it was left out… hmmm

Both Francis and Milco say they had a hard time adjusting to the aggressive attentions of Syrian men, and that they were shocked at the lack of opportunity for Syrian women. But they also say they are grateful to get a peek into a land most Americans know only in caricature, if at all.

Milco, 23, says her time in Syria has also given her an “on-the-ground perspective” of the country and its role in Middle Eastern politics. “I’ve been really happy with how open people are. Not as many girls here wear headscarves as I thought,” the Chicago native says. “But at the same time, I think it’s a city that’s somewhere in the middle of the developing world and the developed.”

In the end, the students say that may be the best lesson of all: not to simply be dazzled by Damascus, but to come away with a more nuanced picture of a society that had been largely opaque.

April 13th, 2008, 7:45 am


Zenobia said:

What’s the problem?????

could it be that it is very annoying to have men look at you like a piece of meat every time you step out on the street??

Men don’t seem to have any scruples at all about staring without pause at anything they like for as long as they like. They sometimes follow alongside you and won’t go away. I think Francis was being polite in her critique.

Being extra “reserved” doesn’t exactly cut it.
It is very wearying to be looked at like a sexual object all the time. Granted, this wasn’t taking place in most social situations where you meet people directly through someone else and gather in a group, but just as a general experience in the public domain.

However, once alone with any male person, you are back to being fare game again. They seemed to be surprised to learn that you might not be interested in their advances.

I did hear that in Egypt it is ten fold worse, and you can get stalked practically. It is true, I never felt actually in danger in Syria, just disrespected and harassed, as if that isn’t much of a problem….

April 13th, 2008, 7:55 am


offended said:

Gorgeous influx.

April 13th, 2008, 9:03 am


offended said:

Btw, for a good and genuine account of an American female student in Aleppo, check this diary:

April 13th, 2008, 9:05 am


Orientalista said:

The only time I’ve ever had a problem with men is in the touristy areas – Bab Toma, Souq Hamadiya especially, the old city in general. There’s always so many tourists that some guys hang around trying to “fish” foreign girls. And it doesn’t really help that most of us wear the foreign girl marker: the scarf (see: girl on left). Long skirt, tank top, and scarf concealing the decolletage is particularly popular. Two months of that and I was out of the old city. Living in Adawi or Jerimana, there is no where near the same level of staring, which above New York levels, but not by much. Even Sitt Zeinab, where every woman is muhajjiba and half are in chador, I can walk around in a knee-length skirt and get stared at less than in the old city. Or in Sha’lan, as guys from all over the city go there with the purpose of checking out ladies.

But no where near the level it is in Egypt.

On a gender level, the hardest thing for me is seeing how my Syrian female friends are limited by their families and fear of shame, whereas I, as a foreign woman, am free to be as shameful as I please.

April 13th, 2008, 9:20 am


Qifa Nabki said:


Morocco is the worst, when it comes to what you are describing.

April 13th, 2008, 11:37 am


alle said:

several young western women i’ve known in syria have been in or nearly in tears at some points of their stay there (even if yes, egypt/morocco is apparently much worse). many/all of them were stalked, verbally harassed and at times physically grabbed. you needed just to take a walk with a western girl through souq el-hamidiyyeh to see the way a LOT of men would be openly ogling, leering and gesturing at her, even when she had friends around. most syrians of course would never dream to do that, but in there seemed to be a rotten apple every 50 meters…

so i don’t see how anyone could possibly claim there’s “no problem”. and it’s certainly not about being “different” from other nations/cultures, in the way syrian food is different (=delicious). it’s harassment, period.

April 13th, 2008, 1:14 pm


Mark Pyruz said:

“Every time I tell a Syrian that I’m American, they just get really excited and happy,” says Francis, 25.

It is the same in Iran.

April 13th, 2008, 1:32 pm


wizart said:


That sort of thing happens only in a few places like the one you mentioned because it’s full of low class migrant workers trying to make a living by selling memorabilia especially to western looking visitors and women seem easier targets. I’m not disagreeing with the fact that there exists also an element of harassment by young bored and “emotionally” hungry and frustrated kids who try fruitless to make a connection without any language or social skills. Again, no apologies for those who abuse visitors which I’ve witnessed in other countries as well. That place you mentioned is the exception not the rule. A Taxi is usually safe (less so at night) although without being accompanied by a guy especially if the attractive lady is half naked the experience might go bad.

Walking is great since there are side walks in many places and it’s a lot safer than walking in many parts of NY, LA or Naples, Italy!

April 13th, 2008, 1:52 pm


wizart said:

Hi Mark,

Welcome on SC blog! is this your first time here?

I noticed you’ve been to Slovenia and Croatia which are excellent places to visit these days. I especially enjoyed lake Blade in Slovenia there and the old coastal town Debrovnick in Croacia!

By the way Damascus is full of Iranian visitors these days. Perhaps it’s easier for them to visit Syria than going all the way to Westood, California which is known as little Tahran and it’s full of you guys:)

P.S I was assuming you had roots from Iran which made you travel there otherwise you could consider it an SC compliment.

April 13th, 2008, 2:07 pm


annie said:

OK, Alle, I wrote the above in a hurry before running out of the house. I was wrong about Syrian men being different. It is their circumstances which are different from those of Westerners for instance. Women are really the forbidden fruit before marriage.

Of course, me being an old lady, my experience is different from that of these good looking women.

April 13th, 2008, 3:02 pm


Alex said:

Annie I just took a look at your site again. Now it is properly populated with your wonderful photos. I have been enjoying going through them for the past half an hour.

I even found one photo of a Syrian man staring at an attractive woman

: )


April 13th, 2008, 3:37 pm


wizart said:

I bet Syrian men get old too Annie but I’m no AIG 🙂

Ok. This message is dedicated to the Foreign minister of Israel which happens to be a rather cute older lady with the name Lipy or zipy?

Why don’t you Lippy and certain interested others take a short vacation to Asfahan, Sheraz and the Caspeian sea in Western Iran where they have some of the coolest beaches and lots of peaceful nice modern people actually get a suntan all year round without bothering w/ foreign policy and difficult trafic jams in Tell Abibi

I don’t know why I just thought about you. Bye! 🙂

April 13th, 2008, 4:35 pm


annie said:

Thank you Alex for the visit.
Wizart, I am much older than Tipy.

April 13th, 2008, 4:53 pm


wizart said:


We have guys from all ages here. Israel guys are usually here when they retire at the ripe young age of…well I don’t know for sure but they’re usually still quite capable to put up a good fight as you can see. I have never visited Brussels although I heard it’s quite a lovely and very cultured place with many cool museums.

Anyway, I was just fooling around a bit about Tipy- for a break!


April 13th, 2008, 5:01 pm


Zenobia said:

I was wondering about when or how long ago Annie spent five years there studying because it is also possible that things have worsened in this regard in the past decade.
Not because women were any less the forbidden fruit than before, but rather because the image of the western woman’s potential promiscuousness has worsened greatly on television and in movies – which are now readily being seen by Syrians.
I am quite appalled at how bad some of the TV series are that make it to the ME… that if you watched, you pretty much think that Americans (men and women) are just sluts all the time. Drunken sluts actually. : )

I am going to disagree with Wizart about the Hamidiyeh being the exception not the rule.
I really think men do not know about the situation. They simply don’t experience it.

Of course the Hamidiyeh souk is exceptionally perilous at times because it is so crowded. But the problem is not the vendors – they are just interested in selling their stuff. the problem is with men who take advantage of the fast moving crowd and veer towards you at the last minute – as if it were the crowded path that drove them, with just enough time to cop a feel or whisper in your ear. And I don’t think they were attempting to sell me some socks.

Of course, there are big differences in where there is more leering going on just on the corner or sidewalk. All the conservative old areas are much worse. And it is rare to have something like that in the calm upscale Abu Rummaneh or other upperclass areas. But think about how much of Damascus is some upscale neighborhood, and how much is old and conservative. I think that makes the old crowded areas the rule, and Malki the exception. Also, a place like Bab Touma is not bad because there are tourists and foreigners all over the place, and people are used to them. I think also – it is simply not as repressed an area. the small streets are teeming with young gussied up girls, so there is plenty to look at and look away!…

But I would reiterate that I was almost never alarmed or scared. Only in a taxi once or twice when the guy decided to take a detour. And one time when I was almost abducted by sleezy Lebanese guys vacationing for the weekend with their fancy stalking car. That was the most serious.

Once I had a guy in Messeh follow me down a large populated street in the evening, back and forth, refusing to go away. And when he realized fairly early on that I was foreign – as i demanded that he leave me alone, he proceeded to look me up and down and kept uttering “$100 dollars”. I got really angry then that apparently I was only valued at 100 dollars! so I raised my voice really loud and yelled at him. At which point he got scared, ran away across the street and gave up.

I met a number of other British female foreign students with a few stories, but nothing dangerous. I also heard from a male student that some of the young male tutors in Bab Touma were using their role as language tutor as an opportunity to attempt to seduce one of their young ladies. In one case, the tutor is now engaged to a British girl and she is taking him back to England.
Nice work if you can get it.

April 13th, 2008, 5:21 pm


norman said:

You are right,
They take their impression of American women and other western ones from our TV series , have seen recently ( HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER ) or ( TWO AND A HALF MEN ), you get from these series that sex for the sex is the norm in the Us , That is further from the truth , we know that because we live here , THEY DO NOT .

Yes , people especially men stare there but they do not move to a physical aggressiveness.

Syrian men are usually care taker of their spouses , and less abusive of their wives than American or other Westerners .

April 13th, 2008, 6:05 pm


kamali said:

As ever, syria is wonderful and great when you go there as a visitor or tourist. the moment you think of settling there, a cloud of troubles starts hammering your head.

the article is quiet a classical view of western travellers visiting a country expecting it to be a heap of rubbish but suddenly discover some sort of people who had had civilisation for the past 100.000 years. No man!, your words and praise would not cover the reality which you are not able to see there. anyway, it is better to keep that face value version rather than spead our “dirty wash”

April 13th, 2008, 6:09 pm


AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

Wow, so really nothing is the fault of Syrian men. It is the fault of US television that is misleading them.

Syrian men do not take good care of their women. There is about 30% illiteracy rate for women in Syria and about 10% for men. In general, women are treated like shit in Syria.

April 13th, 2008, 6:29 pm


wizart said:


I understand how difficult that must have felt. A couple of years ago I also met a middle aged American lady who was thinking about adopting a Syrian baby to take back to America since she thought it would be better than adopting from disease stricken places like Africa. Syrian human resources apparently make for good exports as there are lots of guys/girls looking for ways out to greener pastures as you witnessed with the British tutor hooking up there.

April 13th, 2008, 6:31 pm


Zenobia said:

you should kind of shut up, since you have never been there. It is a very sexist culture in the traditional way, but you would not ever call it treating women ‘like shit’. not even close. I think women are very well treated in certain respects- when it is your wife, mother, sister, daughter, niece, etc. and not a woman from the West. Even I am not saying that people are impolite to the foreign woman. They are exceedingly polite and welcoming, it is just that she is burdened by the feeling that she is inherently a potential conquest for the men there.

Obviously, there are huge differences between villagers and city people in regards to gender equality, naturally. So, the illiteracy rate differentials are mostly bad in the rural areas. but considering the illiteracy rates thirty years ago were at like 70% or something insane like that… there has been tremendous improvement.
The kind of repression of women that is evident is to my mind revolves around the control of sexuality and the obsession with sexual purity. That is the main focus. Also, gender relations and power. But this is a subtle thing, not obvious. Nothing stupid like all the women are waiting on the men hand and foot, or are not allowed to work. Far from it.

this is a very big subject. a very big and interesting subject that cannot be done justice here.

But I think you should be very careful what you say (AIG), since you are utterly unqualified to say it.

April 13th, 2008, 6:50 pm


Alex said:


“In general, women are treated like shit in Syria.”

Take a week off.

April 13th, 2008, 6:52 pm


norman said:


Are you a Syrian woman , you know so much about them.

April 13th, 2008, 6:52 pm


Qifa Nabki said:

Does anybody know what ever happened to the pressure on the Arab League to address the situation in Darfur? A few weeks ago, there was something in the news about it (see below).

This, in my opinion, is one of the most blatant signs of Arab nationalist hypocrisy and two-facedness. Look at what is being done to non-Arab Sudanese, and our governments stand idly by, or even defend the Sudanese government.

A coalition of over 20 Muslim groups Friday urged the Arab League, meeting in Damascus, to do more to address the killings in Darfur.

“Arab nations must take a stand to prove their claim that they are not taking ‘ethnic sides’ in the violence in Darfur,” said head of research at the London based Islamic Human Rights Commission Arzu Merali.

“The voice of Arab populations that have deplored the 200,000 deaths of Darfurians needs to be heard by their governments and acted upon,” Merali said.

“Today we urge the Arab League to act urgently to address the crisis by contributing more aid, demanding an end to the obstruction of peacekeepers, supporting a real ceasefire and promoting the peace process,” he said.

In an open letter that was delivered to the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa earlier this week, the international and national Muslim groups criticized the lack of attention paid to the ongoing crisis in Darfur.

“The crisis has cost the lives of at least 200,000 Muslims yet has not yet captured the attention of the Muslim world in the way that it should,” they said.

Their letter acknowledged that intervening in a member state’s internal affairs was difficult but said that “recognizing the gravity of the situation, it becomes incumbent on organisations like the Arab League to find a viable solution.”
The coalition included such British groups as Friends of Al-Aqsa, Muslim Aid and Islamic Aid as well as Islamic organizations from other countries, including Pakistan, Germany, Malaysia, Iran, Turkey, the US, Australia and Bahrain.

April 13th, 2008, 6:56 pm


Alex said:

I absolutely agree Qifa Nabki. I am the first to admit … When I read Darfur headlines … I get upset, but I don’t read the detailed story.

But I read about Iraq and Lebanon and Palestine and Egypt (and Syria of course).

April 13th, 2008, 6:59 pm


norman said:


This is for you,

History of Past Sexual Abuse in Married Observant Jewish Women
Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D. , Michelle Friedman, M.D., Talli Y. Rosenbaum, P.T., Ellen Labinsky, Ph.D., and James Schmeidler, Ph.D.
OBJECTIVE: The authors examined instances of past sexual abuse and related demographic characteristics in the self-reports of a select group of married observant Jewish women. METHODS: Orthodox Jewish married women (N=380) ages 19 to 58 responded to advertisements asking them to complete an anonymous questionnaire about sexual experiences, including sexual abuse. RESULTS: Sexual abuse was reported by 26% of the respondents surveyed, with 16% reporting abuse occurring by the age of 13. More ultra-Orthodox Jews reported abuse than modern-Orthodox Jews. Women who were raised observant reported significantly less childhood sexual abuse than those who became observant later in life. Sexual abuse was associated with increased treatment-seeking for depression, marital counseling, or other emotional or psychological problems. CONCLUSION: While observant Jewish women live in a culture defined by a high degree of adherence to specific laws of conduct, including rules designed to regulate sexual contact, sexual abuse of various types still exists among them.


now you can see,

April 13th, 2008, 7:03 pm


Alex said:

I posted this one before, but since this post is more relevant, I will post it here again.

An American female journalist’s visit to Syria (few weeks ago)

Started this way

I have to admit that before I came to Syria, I was afraid of the place. All I knew about it was what I had read beneath newspaper headlines: Terrorist cells. Hezbollah. Car bombs. Unsanctioned nuclear power sites. Mysterious Israeli bombings in the middle the night. The attack on the U.S. Embassy with two truckloads of explosives.

It all sounded terrifying.

And at the end of her visit she wrote:

Have I mentioned the doughnuts in Syria? Think: Krispy Cream dipped in glazed chocolate, all wrapped in kisses from the gods of delicious, grease-soaked foods. I’ve been here for a week now, and I think I’ve eaten twelve.

Getting on the airplane today was bittersweet. I’m not going to miss the freezing cold desert air, or the fact that Syrian bus drivers can’t drive in the snow, or the bloody goat carcasses that swing into the street in the crowded markets when you pass by.

But I am going to miss the people I’ve met here. Abir and her beautiful, rambunctious children. Omar, his wife and his gorgeous new baby boy, Adam. Mohammad, who treated me with such kindness. Besim and the other Omar and all the rest.

I’d like to thank all of them, from the bottom of my heart, for treating this wandering American girl with the respect and kindness I only hope I’d have the dignity and patience to offer them in return, had they wandered into my town, confused and lost and desperately in need of sweet tea and doughnuts.

Complete article here.

April 13th, 2008, 7:12 pm


norman said:


Thank you , you made my day.

April 13th, 2008, 7:32 pm


Zenobia said:

Nice article from Seattle Times. a lot better than the snobby condescending thing by Heidi Kingstone, for sure.

April 13th, 2008, 8:24 pm


annie said:

Zenobia, I spent five years in Syria ending October 2007, i.e. 5 1/2 months ago.

My Syria is that of an old lady who was hardly ever pestered by randy men.

To each his own Syria.

I miss my Syria so incredibly much.

April 13th, 2008, 8:55 pm


CWW said:

First off my experience as an American student of Arabic in Damascus has, overall, been fabulous. Many of the difficulties I experienced as westerner (and expected to be present in Syria) in other poor countries have have been largely non-existent here. I am referring to extremely aggressive haggling and streets teeming with homeless people/beggars and street children. I have been told by other students that those are difficulties they encountered on a large-scale in Cairo.

As for the the experiences of the women I know: it seems that it’s a mixed bag. I’ve heard a few horrible stories, like the “wanking cab drivers” or a student who was assaulted on the street while with a friend late at night. However, there isn’t a great disparity between the number of male and female students studying Arabic here, so apparently the environment isn’t discouraging young women from staying. Many of the women I know, roommates and classmates, have decided to stay here for a long period of time.

On a related topic,
It’s impossible for many of us who are sitting at our computers in foreign countries, or even in Bab Touma, to know whether “In general, women are treated like shit in Syria.” I don’t even know what that means or how one would measure that.

But Norman, data on Orthodox Jewish women is really irrelevant to the question of whether or not women in Syria are treated like shit.

Men who engage in honor killings remain protected by Syrian law. Killing one’s sister because she has been involved in a romantic relationship and stained the family honor is still protected by various parts of the Syrian legal code (see NYTIMES link below).

From the NYTIMES (link is appended):
“…“Honor here means only one thing: women, and especially the sexual life of women,” Mousa said. The decision to carry out an honor killing is usually made by the family as a group, and an under-age boy is often nominated to carry out the task, to eliminate even the smallest risk of a prison sentence.

Some advocates claim that Syria has an especially high number of honor killings per capita, saying that the country is second or third in the world. In fact, reliable statistics on honor killing are nearly impossible to come by. The United Nations Population Fund says that about 5,000 honor killings take place each year around the world, but since they often occur in rural areas where births and deaths go unreported, it is very difficult to count them by country. Some killings have been recorded in European cultures, including Italy, and in Christian or Druse communities in predominantly Muslim countries. But it is widely agreed that honor killings are found disproportionately in Muslim communities, from Bangladesh to Egypt to Great Britain.”

April 13th, 2008, 8:57 pm


Zenobia said:

oh really. interesting. well, you know, i have many negative things to say, and i was only there for most of the year, not five years..which i think makes a big difference.
I was reading a snipet from a book i picked up in bookstore in Beirut that was written for foreigners arriving in Lebanon. Basically, it said there are stages of adjustment when arriving in a very culturally different place.
first stage is euphoria and thrill, excitement etc. sort of like how one feels on vacation or as a guest.

then after time, when this wears off and one faces the realities of daily life, there is a kind of come down that can range from just anti-climactic feeling to downright depression.
the book said that it can even get so bad that one starts to criticize the culture or be mad at it.. : )…for all the things that seem wrong or not to our liking.

Then the third stage after a long adjustment… that can take months and months or even a couple of years…is a gradual adaptation and acceptance. One can reach a comfort level and ease from not having to use so much energy all the time understanding surroundings and the social norms or how to fit into the environment. One feels a part of it and even attachment.

I thought this analysis was very fascinating. I am sure that because I didn’t have even a longer time- I couldn’t really reach the third stage of comfort and adaptation. I was still feeling alien most of the time.

Nonetheless, i was not happy to leave! i missed many convenience things from home in the States, but I was frustrated to not have more time in the ME- because there was so much more to do and learn and feel. I hope that I will have that chance again and begin again from a higher point on the cultural learning curve.
There are many thing that I missed right away and more over time (i came back in January).

Especially, i miss the smell of the desert air (when the pollution isn’t covering it up)and the mountain landscape.
Most of all I miss – the Call to Prayer (which i have decided is pretty much the most beautiful public sound on earth). I miss people watching in downtown. I miss looking at Syrian faces in their myriad characteristics but somehow all looking very Syrian. And I miss ‘hanging out’ with no time constraints, taking in the warmth of families interacting with each other with the alternating pace from frenetic to molasses.

I even miss the strangeness and the challenges and even my alien-ness at times because it meant to me- that there are yet unknown things and uncovered discoveries to be made.
Syria is this very deep place, i think. It has many faces.
It has layers of activity and meaning that you need time to dig into. The outer layers seem sometimes charming and super polite, and then frustrating and absurd and dark underneath that. There is great inconvenience at times, slowness that one is not used to.

But if one could slow down into it – for a long time.. i think the other layers start to come out, emerging depths and rationality. Meaning to the madness. Beauty to the decay. Great humanity under the anxiety of difficult lives of scarcity and competition. Complexity underneath a seeming narrowness of mind.
I certainly miss the experience of wandering into those depths and trying to find what it there and to comprehend it.

April 13th, 2008, 9:41 pm


Enlightened said:


I Think you are being a “little unfair” to AIG ( another Israeli girl), he/she does hold a major degree in Psychology and Human relationships, his/her specialty is “Marriage Counselling” as part of his/her PHD thesis , he/she has collected numerous data on the treatment of Women in Syria.

He/she is just expressing female solidarity with her Syrian sisters on their bad treatment by their husbands.

You might have acted a “little hastily”, please reconsider the 1 week ban.

April 14th, 2008, 12:22 am


annie said:

Ay Zenobia, you say it so much better than I ever could !
“Especially, i miss the smell of the desert air (when the pollution isn’t covering it up)and the mountain landscape.
Most of all I miss – the Call to Prayer (which i have decided is pretty much the most beautiful public sound on earth). I miss people watching in downtown. I miss looking at Syrian faces in their myriad characteristics but somehow all looking very Syrian. And I miss ‘hanging out’ with no time constraints, taking in the warmth of families interacting with each other with the alternating pace from frenetic to molasses”
“Great humanity under the anxiety of difficult lives of scarcity and competition. Complexity underneath a seeming narrowness of mind.”

April 14th, 2008, 6:25 am


alle said:

Wow, this turned into a great debate. And let me say for the record that I also miss Syria a lot, though I was fortunate enough to be able to go back for a short visit this Spring — but that only makes me want to go back again. And Zenobia is spot on with the call to prayer… I even started listening in on the different mosques. The most beautiful call in Damascus was, as I remember it (from most of 2005), coming from a mosque close to the Hijaz station. Just a shame that the crappy loudspeakers mess up the voices and drown out each other. Since it’s a dictatorship anyway, couldn’t Bashar do some good for once and ban that? Or at least order up some quality sound equipment on the state’s expense.

Wizart — You’re right about Souq el-Hammidiyyeh being worse than most places, and that also goes for tourist hot spots (eg. Palmyra). The worst things women friends told me about, or that I saw, invariably happened in places where western women pass regularly, and so these creeps would probably flock there and wait for prey. Actually, in the really traditional-conservative places (as opposed to just urban poor) I can’t recall anyone having a problem — or at least no one told me about it.

April 14th, 2008, 8:03 am


Alex said:

By the way, this is the worst incident I heard of. Cairo, last year


April 14th, 2008, 6:48 pm


norman said:


Why do you want the Syrian government to do more , you might want to ask private charities to do some work , the idea that the government should do everything is unfortionate , people should do for themselves leaving the GOV to do the things that people can not do.

April 15th, 2008, 12:55 am


alle said:

Well, I agree, but in Syria’s case, I’d phrase it the other way around: the government should leave people alone, so they can fix all those everyday things that the state has so far been manifestly unable to do.

April 15th, 2008, 8:33 am


Kooki said:

You’re all right and all wrong about whether women are harassed on the street in Syria. Anyone who’s travelled in the Maghreb will tell you it’s much worse there. I live in Damascus now and in the past I’ve lived in Turkey and Iran. They’re all pretty much the same. It doesn’t mean it’s great here. I can give you positive examples (I go jogging here and just ignore curious looks — no-one’s as much as hooted at me) and horrendous examples (a Western teenager sightseeing with her family in the souk in Aleppo had acid thrown over her). It is true that some of this is location specific. When I worked in Turkey, I noticed that if I dressed as a tourist and was on the main “drag”, eg near the Blue Mosque, I got hassled. If I dressed as a professional, I got ignored.

And as far as the real situation of women goes, there are more important things — look at the literacy rate, look at the laws on custody and divorce, look at access to education, look at the primary health care system — these can tell you more than whether you get hassled on the street.

Syria is a mixed bag when it comes to women’s rights, like many other countries in the region. But don’t tell me young women don’t get feeled up on the London underground, Paris metro etc etc

I’m sorry AIG got banned for speaking out of turn. I’d rather see a discussion like this than the usual Palestinian-Israeli rambles.

April 15th, 2008, 1:12 pm


wizart said:


I understand how you feel about the early morning calls to prayers although I’m not sure how the problem of having so many calls overlapping can be solved without some help from the government and even if the government interfered the religious conservatives might create issues and complications. By the way, I wonder what Christians and foreign tourists think when they are awakened at 4 in the morning by calls to prayers.

Overall, Syria is pretty safe for tourists especially compared to nearby places like Egypt (see article above from Alex) or Israel beloww:


2 Scandinavian tourists accuse Ein Gedi kibbutzniks of rape
By Jonathan Lis and Mijal Grinberg

It is still unclear what happened late on Sunday night and early Monday morning at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, next to the Dead Sea.

What is known is that two Scandinavian women tourists, aged 17 and 19, returned to the guest house where they were staying and said they had been raped by three men from the kibbutz.

The women said they had gone late at night to the room of one of the men, where they were later attacked and raped. The guest-house manager called the police who arrested the three suspects. The young men told the police they had had sex with the young women with their full consent.

Judge Yael Raz Levy, at the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court, remanded the men for five days, and placed a gag order on their identities.

The two women had been staying at Ein Gedi for a number of weeks as part of a group of tourists. The rest of the group left the kibbutz, and it seems Israel, yesterday as planned, but the two women have extended their stay for a few days to be available to aid the investigation.

Closed community

A spokeswoman for the kibbutz, Meirav Eilon, said yesterday that other kibbutz members said they had met the two women at various parties and social events over the past few weeks. Kibbutz members refused to speak to the press, passing all inquiries on to Eilon.

The question for a closed community such as a kibbutz is how to treat the suspects and their families. For example, should they be provided with legal support, said one member.

Ein Gedi’s lawyer, David Gilat, is representing the three.

Both the police and the suspects agreed to the gag order: the police to prevent interference with the investigation and the suspects to protect their own privacy.

Kibbutz members refused to provide any information concerning the three men, except for the fact that all three are children of kibbutz members, who were released a while ago from the army.

Since leaving the army, they have been working in tourism and other kibbutz industries. Only one of the men had a room in the kibbutz’s neighborhood for young adults – the room where the alleged rapes took place.

April 15th, 2008, 1:23 pm


alle said:

I don’t mind the morning round (and they’re usually lower in volume, so I don’t wake up), I just think it’s a shame that the beauty of the prayer call is lost when the muezzins try to make themselves heard in the cacophony of low-quality loudspeakers.

Individually, most prayer calls tend to be very nice to listen to, even for non-Muslims (like me), and it adds a lot to the Damascus atmosphere to hear them. But nowadays with the unrestrained shouting into microphones, it sounds more like someone lets out a flock of crazed sheep five times a day. Awful.

April 16th, 2008, 7:33 am


wizart said:

I just wonder how western diplomats and many “others” feel when their sleep is disturbed so early every morning so I think it would be a better idea if people could use an alarm clock if they want to wake up at certain hours. There’re about 3 million Christians in Syria and I’m not speaking on their behalf. I just think it takes away from the essence of religion. When I was a kid I prayed for a while at certain times. Now I think that aspect of religion disturbs others right to enjoy a good night sleep.

That’s all I’m saying. Not to offend or infringe on others rights.

April 16th, 2008, 8:10 am


wizart said:

Door opener to Syria

By Åse Johanne Roti Dahl.

A joint Norwegian and Syrian team of researchers has carried out a three week long, minute examination of the ground to the north of Palmyra. The first part of the investigation is over and project leader, Prof. Jørgen Christian Meyer of the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, is back in Bergen with a list of finds and a promise of further cooperation. A formal project agreement has been signed by the University of Bergen and Dr. Michel al-Maqdissi who is director of antiquities and museum in Syria and Meyer believes that this could lead to even more collaboration between the University of Bergen and the Syrian authorities.

– The Syrians are allowing us to share their past, and I hope that this project will prove to be a door opener for others who wish to work in this historically important area of the Middle East. We already have institutes in Athens and Rome. It’s a pity that we do not have a similar arrangement in the Middle East, as there are enormous possibilities in the area. This doesn’t just apply to subjects such as archaeology and history, but also to cultural and Middle Eastern studies, says Meyer.

Part of a data base

The research project examines the connections between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean in the past and up until the Islamic period. One of the most important caravan routes along the Silk Road went through this area. The research team, consisting of Jørgen Christian Meyer, Nils Anfinsen and Eivind Seland from the University of Bergen and Jonatan Krzywinski of the Office of Cultural Heritage in Bergen, has been given the job of registering and measuring all antiquities in an area covering more than 120×30 km. A team from the museum in Palmyra, lead by museum director Walid El-Assad, will be helping.

– In addition to the hoped for answers to scientific questions, developing expertise about the area is also important. All finds will be included in a national and regional data base for Syrian antiquities, says Meyer.

Rich archaeological finds
So far, the team has registered a number of caravan stations, forts, villages, large concentrations of Bronze Age elevations and numerous irrigation systems. They have also collected flint, earthenware pottery, glass and some roman coins which should help with the dating. The finds show that the area, which we would call desert, was utilized differently in the past. The area appears to have been farmed extensively, prior to the Islamic period.

The buildings in the area also provide important information about how people lived and how the area was utilized. Buildings were erected on stone foundations and sun-dried bricks of clay and straw were used as building material. These bricks will help the team to find out more about how the landscape looked, thousands of years ago.

– The bricks contain pollen, which when analyzed, will help us find out if the area had another type of vegetation in the past, says Meyer.

He is certain that the area contains a lot more than has so far been discovered.

– The work has only just begun. It will take several years before we get a proper picture of how the landscape around Palmyra was made use of, not only during the period when Palmyra was one of the most important cities along the Silk Road, but also in prehistoric times, says Meyer.

The team will be returning to the area in the autumn, to analyze the finds. Camels will be used on the trip from Palmyra and northwards, along the old caravan route.

– The landscape looks totally different from the back of a camel, says Meyer.

May 16th, 2008, 11:34 am


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