Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Moor is of a Free and Open Nature

Chose the neighbor before the house. Ancient Syrian Proverb

I flew from Dubai to Damascus on Emirates Airline flight number 911. Only in the Arab world, apparently, do they still number flights after the calendar date of the September Eleven attacks. My eyes were glued to the Syrian landscape as we broke through the clouds and approached the capital city. The only time I had seen Syria previously was in grainy Israeli war documentaries, where the camera peers down on the tail end of a bomb dropping over some poor Syrian ammunition dump or military base. So setting my own eyes on the country with no bombs in the way was a revelation. Not that there was much to see besides rocks and sand. Until we approached the airport, that is, when anti-aircraft guns could be discerned buried along the approach to the main tarmac.

The Damascus airport is a dusty throwback to the way overseas airports looked before the glistening temples of Dubai and Beijing changed the equation. My flight touched down at ten o'clock. By ten fifteen I was settling into the bus that for eighty cents would take me on the forty minute drive to the center of the city. Clearing customs in the airport was a breeze. They merely stamped my passport, gave me the perfunctory "from America? Welcome!" and then outside the airports a few touts lamely tried to wrap me up with offers of a forty dollar taxis ride.

Two years ago, when I arrived in Beijing for the first time in December 2007, I also chose to ignore the cab stand and take a cheap bus into the city. The difference was that then I was arriving in a city with fairly clear street signs (albeit in Chinese characters!). Damascus does not really go in for street signs. So when I got off the bus at the advice of other passangers, I had no idea where I was or where I should go to reach the centrally located hotel I intended to reside in for my first two nights. Fortunately a young Syrian got off the bus by my side and guided me towards my destination. He was returning home after covering the night shift at the airport's car rental. His day job is as a part time student at Damascus University where he is studying English Literature. And like nearly every student at the university that I would later meet, my volunteer guide was enrolled in the university's Shakespeare course.

It has been nearly a decade since I last trundled through the Bard's plays but I was still able to provide some insight as we discussed the finer points of Hamlet and Othello. The latter play, my guide informed me, is taught every term. I am not sure whether this reflects the characterization of Othello as Arab or whether it simply is the only work the professor understands well enough to teach. It is a relief to learn that Syrians are not being drilled on The Merchant of Venice and learning all about Shakespeare's understanding of the conniving Jew.

I wished my guide good luck and with more than a few wrong turns, eventually made it to the Al Rabie Hostel in the Souq Saroujah neighborhood. I later discovered that the easiest way to find the hotel is by navigating towards the closest landmark, a huge concrete hulk of an uncompleted building that dominates the skyline of central Damascus. I would only stay in these digs for two nights, enough time to arrange necessities like an Arabic language tutor, a room to rent, a cellphone and local SIM card, and a convenient gym membership. All these tasks were completed by the close of my second day in Syria.

The first day had been devoted to wandering through the byways of the Old City, copying down the names and numbers of tutors advertising their services on notes taped to the ancient stone. The first tutor to respond was a Christian fellow named Basel Nejem. We met at his family's house five minutes from Bab Touma Square, the busy eastern entrance to the Old City. There was nothing I did not like in the reasonable rates, the promise to find me a nearby room in Arab family's home, and the assurance that no payment was due until after I found the classes satisfactory. So the next day I arrived for my first class with my stuff. When our two and a half hour class wrapped up, Basel directed me to where I would live--in his own Arab family's courtyard residence!

My room is spartan with only a cot, a desk and a small cupboard. But from the nearby roof, all of Damascus can be seen. And from the courtyard I can look across to the New City, as the Nejem residence forms part of the eastern wall of the Old City.

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