Saturday, May 7, 2011

When the Regime Shows Its Ugly Face

Last Wednesday, May 4, I arrived in Amman, Jordan, leaving my program a few weeks early.  Since I am no longer living in the police state, for the first time since arriving in Syria I can speak freely about how I perceived the situation there.

I remember one of the first things I thought when I arrived in Syria was how much better everything was run than in Egypt.  Streets were cleaner, stores and offices more organized, Syrian food blew its Egyptian counterpart out of the water, the economy was noticeably stronger and there seemed to be a lower unemployment rate.  However, most important and most different from Egypt, Syrians seemed pretty content with their government.  To be honest, during the first months of the program, this last point made sense to me.  I heard about the occasional disappearance, and complete lack of political rights, but the country was doing all right.  And when compared with Egypt, Syrian ran like a well-oiled machine.  Which is why, back in mid March when some people down south in Dera'a started getting uppity, I, like many Syrians in Aleppo, shrugged it off assuming that they would get bored of protests after a bit.  However, unlike many Syrians, I did not believe the lies of the government which blamed "armed foreign criminal groups" for most of the violence.

What actually happened was an incredibly violent and disproportionate response from the security forces, which was probably the dumbest thing the government could have possibly done.  Protests started innocently enough in Dera'a with small groups of people calling for political, social and economic reforms; mainly abstract concepts like rights and freedom without any specific demands.  Then, the regime comes in and starts beating, imprisoning and killing people and wonders why things become more intense.  I kept asking myself, did they just expect citizens of Dera'a to bury their dead quietly and forget that innocent people had been murdered?  It didn't make any sense.

So, rather than fizzle out like I had expected, the opposite happened.  Protests became emboldened and demands for reform were replaced by demands for the downfall of the regime.  The Syrian government was as popular as a tyrannical regime could possibly be, and they blew it because, well, they're tyrants.  One should expect nothing less.  The rest is mostly history, but the basic developments haven't changed too much.  The government continues to use deadly violence against almost all protests (which thus far have mostly been concentrated in Dera'a, areas of Damascus, Homs, Latakia, Deir az-Zour, Qamishli, Banyas, as well as a few others) and there have been reports of Dera'a bearing the brunt of the regime's wrath in the form of a complete military siege.  This is the most the military has done in the past 20 or 30 years, which is kind of ironic considering they have officially been at war with Israel since 1967.  I read a Facebook status written by a Syrian a few days ago that said "Apologies citizens of Dera'a, the military got the address wrong" (they were supposed to go to Israel).

These days, I feel like just about the only people in Syria that are still fanatically clinging to the righteousness of the regime are in Aleppo.  Living there was a big reason why I did not expect the demonstrations to really take hold.  Aleppo consists of many more minority populations than the rest of Syria, including Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds.  Excluding the Kurds, minorities in Syria have long enjoyed a pretty good position in society, economically and socially, and worry about what would happen if the Alawites, who have taken such good care of them over the past 40 plus years, lost power and were replaced by Sunnis.  Additionally, there are few Alawites actually living in Aleppo, so, as a friend of mine put it, there isn't any friction between them and Sunnis.  Alawites are nepotistically given positions of power in the government and military, and their lack of strong presence in Aleppo means that the Sunnis there don't see firsthand the discrimination to which they are subject.  There are a few other reasons why Aleppo has remained so quiet, but those are two of the main ones.

I obviously am very opposed to the regime in Syria, and have become more so along with many Syrians.  It is one of the most despicable forms of government in the region (although a few of its neighbors give it a run for its money in that regard).  However, as of now, there is still too much fear of the unknown, of what or who would potentially succeed Bashar if he was overthrown.  The propaganda machine in Syria is also far more effective than it was in Egypt; the government still has its credibility with a large percentage of the population, and has succeeded in discrediting much of foreign media (Al-Jazeera's sensationalist coverage hasn't exactly helped in this case). While I am optimistic that Bashar's days are very much numbered, he will not go without a long fight from both him and his supporters.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Other Deir

So for those of you who I haven't told, I have decided to get out of Syria within the next couple days.  Still haven't bought my ticket, but they're (almost) daily and the same price whether I buy it 5 days or 5 hours before the time of departure.  Upon my departure, I will give a more candid rundown of how I see the situation here.

Regardless, my last post reminded me that I haven't talked about my new home yet.  If you remember, in January I moved to a new place in the "new" old city of Aleppo, called Al-Jadeida.  It is also a monastery, or deir, but that is mostly just a name.  In practice, it's a student house for Syrians, mostly Damascenes, who are studying in Aleppo.  One of the students at the institute has lived there since the beginning, so my friend Chris and I decided to move to get more of an Arab environment than we were getting in our previous place.  But the real reason I'm talking about this is to show pictures of the beautiful courtyard of the Arab styled house that has been my home for the past few months.

Behind the tree is Chris preparing to throw an orange he has in his right hand at me.

Living here has also made me realize that in order for any foreigner to successfully live in the Middle East (or maybe just Syria) for an extended period of time, they need to have local friends.  I don't know that many Syrians, and most of them are from the Deir.  However, they left for a few weeks while they were on break from school, and during that time I spent most of my time with my room mate, Chris.  It was a bit weird, but because I was mostly only interacting with foreigners, it felt like I was watching a movie.  Everywhere I went were people with whom I had no relation, and I just watched them going about their daily lives.  They were separate from me, and I was separate from them.  When I'm hanging out with Syrian friends, however, it's a completely different feeling because I become inserted into the society, and feel like I'm a part of it, rather than watching it.  Not having any connection with Syrian society made me feel like a minority, different than everyone else, and constantly being judged for said difference, which is a draining way to live one's life.  Being able to meld into society allowed me to forget all the little things about Syrians that irk me, and it felt a lot more like I was somewhere I could live for an extended period of time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Living the Monastic Life

Not too long ago I traveled with a couple friends to a place called Deir Mar Mousa, a monastery about 80 kilometers north west of Damascus.  This was easily the coolest thing I had done in Syria thus far.  It's a mostly independent Catholic monastery that allows anyone to visit for any amount of time, and as long as you help out with daily chores, it's completely free.  The monastery is placed in the side of a mountain and one must climb a large number of steps to reach it.  We arrived at night, right before evening services, so the first thing we did when we got there was attend a mass mostly in Arabic, with a bit of French thrown in.  Because not all the normal monks were there, and there was a shortage of Arabic speakers, I was asked to read a short reading from the Book of Luke.  We spent two nights there, and with two services each day, I got my filling of church for about a year and a half.  Although they weren't compulsory, I went to almost every mass simply because they were much more interesting than any Catholic service I had ever been to before. Most of the other visitors there were uber-religious Europeans, and so I had some very stimulating conversations about the pros and cons of the EU over dinner.  I decided that if I ever have a month to kill, and really have nothing else to do, I will just come back here, hang out, and study Arabic.

The Deir lodged in the side of a mountain, taken while hiking
The path leading up to the Deir
The two buildings of the Deir (women's residence on the left) from below
On another note, I'm seriously considering leaving the program about a month early to travel to Amman and Dakar with my mother and sister to visit my other sister who's living in Mali right now.  Although nothing is set in stone, it would be a great reason to leave a bit early.  We'll see.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Syria is still all right

It's 11:30 am on Thursday, and I'm sitting in the institute trying to get some work in, and all I can hear is a bunch of school children screaming at the top of their lungs "God, Syria and Bashar only!".  It's annoying at best, downright freaky at worst.

A few days ago I sent an email to my family trying to assuage their fears with respect to recent developments in Syria, so here is a slightly edited version:

I assume most of you have been following the news, but so far, the main places that have witnessed actual demonstrations against the government seem to be Dera'a and surrounding areas, Homs/Hama (I can never keep them straight) and Latakia (ironically the Alawite bastion).  Dera'a is in the far south, about a 7 hour drive from Aleppo, Homs and Hama are both between Aleppo and Damascus, and Latakia is on the western coast, around 2 hours from here.  The government is blaming most of the unrest on "foreign elements", i.e. Palestinians, Jordanians, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, et cetera paid off by Israelis/Saudis/Americans to stir up trouble.

From what I understand, and despite what a lot of media is reporting, Damascus has almost exclusively been experiencing pro-government "rallies" (this distinction is important: anything in support of the government is a rally, against it is a demonstration).  Aleppo has been very similar.  In fact, the other night my room mate woke up terrified thinking that he was hearing gun fire, but realized a few minutes later that it was only fireworks being set off.  People are driving around honking their horns and waving Syrian flags everywhere chanting "God, Syria and Bashar only".  The most likely cause of any death in Aleppo over the next few days will probably be a car accident because they're driving like maniacs.  So I don't foresee anything serious going down in Aleppo, but who knows what will happen.

The biggest thing to happen was two days ago when government-planned rallies took place in Damascus and Aleppo.  The American embassy warned us about them, but they were more an annoyance than anything else: thousands (millions according to Syria) of people just hanging around in the middle of the city blocking traffic and making a whole lot of noise.

Yesterday Bashar Al-Assad gave a speech in response to the unrest in the country.  It has received mixed reviews (I for one think he's following a script we've already seen around this region) but I'll let you read about it from more reliable sources.

The upshot of all this is that I haven't once felt like the situation where I am has become dangerous at all.  I don't really expect things to spread much to the main cities, nor do I expect them to continue very long, although tomorrow is Friday, which always holds surprises.  But from what I can gather, a lot of the news is somewhat exaggerated in terms of the scope of these demonstrations.  While they are very real, I've been reading some funny numbers, and I even read once that there was a demonstration in Aleppo, which was patently false (I had just walked passed the area in which they said it was and there was nothing there).  I'm keeping my ear close to the ground of course, but for now, everything is pretty all right.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Contradictory Congruence

Arabic is one of those languages that, rather than getting easier as you learn more, just becomes harder.  I've been telling my friend here that I'm convinced there's a council of Arab sheikhs who sit in a big room and invent new weird rules or words weekly that exist just to confuse us.  The other day, in colloquial class, I learned that the word that usually means "is not" can sometimes, depending on the context, mean "what is".  Which gives it the exact opposite meaning.  HOWEVER, for that particular expression, it's often used sarcastically, which brings us back to the original meaning of "is not".  So, even if you figure out which one it means, you have to then know whether the person is being sarcastic.  All I could think of while learning this was the word "heik", which essentially means "that's the way things are, so deal with it".

Not two days later, I was in grammar class and discovered a word that can be used two different ways, depending on context:  as an emphatic particle or a diminishing particle.  Apparently this week was the week of contradictory words.  All this absurdity reminded me of what one of my Arabic professors in college told me.  Most Arabic linguists hold that all Arabic words have four meanings:  its main meaning, its opposite, a reference to sex, and camel.  Thus is the life of an Arabic student.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Grandiosity of The Gulf

On the 11th, two kids I study with, Chris and Katie, and I took a trip to Oman.  I was the guava bag; if you don't know what that means, ask an Egyptian.  As luck would have it, we found a flight through a new budget airline called Air Dubai, which, in accordance with its namesake, routes all of its flights through Dubai.  So, since we arrived in Dubai at 7pm on Friday with a 12 hour layover ahead of us, we decided to explore the city a bit.

This was the kind of place where 12 hours suffice.  We ate at an amazing Indian joint called Saravanaa Bhavan (which has a location in New York City) and then went to check out the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at 828 meters, and the Dubai Mall, a huge building with expensive designer shops and an olympic size ice rink.  In Dubai, everything is the biggest:  biggest building, biggest mall, biggest acrylic panel in front of a fish tank.  The city felt more like plastic than anything else.  The only Arabs we came across were shopping in the mall; most of the interactions we had were with the South Asians living there, which allowed Katie to brush some dust off of her Urdu/Hindi (it's the same language guys).

The Burj Khalifa.  Far too large to fit into a single frame.

We went back to the airport and tried sleeping on the grass outside, but were rudely awakened at 3 am by sprinklers.  Too cliché.  Inside the airport was not quite as comfortable, but it was dry.  The next day we flew to Oman.

I'm not going to chronicle everything we did there, lest this turn into an unbearably long and boring piece, so I'll try to give an overview.  The first two nights we slept in Nizwa, a smallish town about 2 hours south west from the capital, Muscat, with a couch surfing couple.  We saw some sights around that area, and then went to Sur (on the coast, south east of Muscat), stopping for a safari through sand dunes in the Wahabi Sands.  That night we slept on the beach/in our rental car.  The next day was by far the highlight of the trip when we went to Wadis Tiwi and Shab.  They were gorgeous oases with palm trees, green freshwater pools and amazing rock structures.  Following this we returned to Muscat, had dinner at the Saravanaa Bhavan there, and met up with our second couch surfing host.  We spent a few nights in Muscat, and while there we went to a hot spring and saw one of the palaces of Sultan Qaboos (easily the best looking Arab leader).

Walking through the desert near Nizwa
At the Wahiba Sands

Our camp on the ocean

A pool in Wadi Shab leading to the cave at the end

Inside the cave at the end of Wadi Shab.  We climbed up that rope and found a path that lead to the top of the cave.  I couldn't bring my camera though for fear of soaking it.

We found a frog

The Sultan's Palace

Neanderthals crossing.
The Muscat Port

Fireworks at the Muscat Festival.  Kids got in my way, but made for a cool picture.

Oman was an amazing country not only because of its unique geographical features, but because it is an incredible mixture of cultures.  Arabs, (East?) Africans and South Asians are everywhere (despite this diversity, three white kids still stand out, even if two of them are galabiya clad.  Although I will say if I wasn't flanked by my companions I blended in pretty well).  The multinational aspect of Oman is manifested foremost in the cuisine, which is a blend of Arab and Indian/Pakistani.  In contrast to Dubai, it still felt very much like an Arab country, but was far more developed than any place in the Levant.

After a week of traveling, I returned to Syria, a day early, because that was the day my Syrian visa expired.  As a general rule, it is not advisable to take such risks with entering this country, but it worked out for me after more than a couple raised eyebrows.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Oman omen

In my last post, I said that Mubarak and I were both going to be traveling soon.  As it turned out, we were actually destined to travel on the same exact day!  I didn't even realize how accidentally prophetic I was being until my mother (surprise, surprise) commented on my post.  Anyway, developments in the Middle East over the past week have been incredibly exciting.  It has been so satisfying to watch all of these oppressive, geriatric leaders tremble before the power of the people.

Egypt erupted into celebrations, which I watched on Aljazeera in the Dubai airport, following Mubarak's forced resignation.  And many other Arab countries have been following suit with strong demonstrations against their tyrannical leaders.  However, Egypt isn't out of the water yet.  I am very hopeful for its future, but the army is still in power, and all three of the previous dictators have come from the army.

Coverage in Egypt has brought to light some disturbing sexism and racism in the western world, best manifested in this article.  It should be noted, however, that Nir Rosen does do a solid job at defending at least his own comments and provides additional commentary on the topic here.  The way women are treated in Egypt has been a large problem for a long time, one I witnessed on more than one occasion, and with a new government I believe this has the potential to change, but the blanket blaming of Egypt and Islam is just another example of the west's tolerance for some forms racism, but not others.  A hypocrisy that is not so different from the U.S.'s tolerance for some tyrants (i.e. those that support its policies in the Middle East) but not for others, irrespective of democratic aspirations and human rights records.

Now, the protest bug has spread to Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Iran and Bahrain.  Libya is the newest and most optimistic, and if Gaddafi is ousted the only thing about him I will miss will be his antics.  Aljazeera did an excellent job covering Egypt in both English and Arabic, essentially becoming the primary source of information and developments in the country and is now extensively covering Libya and Yemen.  However, once unrest spread to the Gulf, namely Bahrain, the Qatari news channel's Arabic version has become disturbingly silent.  It seems that Qatar will support regime change anywhere but in other Gulf countries.  It's just unfortunate that Aljazeera is subject to the same governmental pressures as so many other media sources.

I returned to Syria from Oman today.  While it was an absolutely incredible trip, my internet, being slower than a snail going through maple syrup, precludes me from uploading pictures.  So, I will post again in a few days with exciting details of my week devoid of boring political goings-on.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What do Hosni Mubarak and I have in common?

We're both going to be traveling really soon!

There isn't too much news in Halab since my last post, but next Friday I'm going to Oman for a week.  Finally, the Middle East decided to catch up with Europe (I know the U.S. will follow suit next) and create a budget airline called Air Dubai, which flies around this region for pretty decent fares.  A couple friends and I will be flying into Dubai, where we have a layover from 7pm to 7am and then we'll continue onto Muscat.  That layover couldn't be more perfect, as it's just about enough time to see some cool things in Dubai, but not enough time for the place to start getting under our skin.  Anyway, I'll be coming back the following Friday the 18th in time for classes to start again two days later.  The upshot of all that is you will likely be saved from my ramblings by way of more pictures the next time I update.

But enough about my boring news, the Middle East has been so exciting these past couple weeks!  I'm sure all of my many loyal readers (who probably just boil down to my mother) have been following events in Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt meticulously.  Nothing has changed in Syria though.  The situation here has been completely unfazed by exterior events.  However, one of my friends who was working in Cairo, and has since left for Athens, sent me some pretty cool descriptions and pictures of his participation in protests in Egypt.  Minus the slight danger of beatings/incarceration/death, I'm a bit jealous of his experience.  Syria is relatively boring.  I guess I've been spoiled by security.  Also, I, unlike CASA folks in Cairo (one of which has a blog that I've linked to on the right side of this screen, although it appears she's even worse about updating than I am), am able to continue my Arabic studies uninterrupted, so maybe I shouldn't complain.

As a conclusion, I will leave you with a picture that I posted on Facebook with the same caption I used (my room mate's speculation as to what they're saying) that's created quite the fuss:

Democracy in Egypt? HA!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Skating in Syria

Well, I guess I should apologize.  Here I am making a blog and being all gung-ho about it, and I haven't updated it since Thanksgiving.  So, all I can say is, my bad.

In my defense, the end of last semester was filled with a whole not of nothing.  I was basically just studying Arabic the entire time, and that has a limited novelty.  At any rate, last semester ended on December 17th, at which point I high-tailed it to Amman.  My three weeks off were pretty fun, but I'm not going to talk about them here.  If you're really interested, email me.

Upon arriving back in Syria, I was greeted with the unfriendly reminder that it actually gets cold here.  Fortunately it's not the kind of blistery cold of -10˚F accompanied by mountains of snow.  However, it is an inescapably constant 35-40˚ annoyance.  There are no insulated buildings in this country and not a whole lot of central heating, but understandably so since the summers here are nigh unbearable.  However, this means that currently there is little refuge from the cold.  Even the newest student, from Norway, commented on how cold it is here.  However, we did manage to find a skating rink, and at $6 per hour (including rentals) it's not a bad deal, despite the cratered ice.

In other, non-weather related news, my roommate Chris and I have recently moved to a new place.  We were living in the aforementioned apartment which had an amazing view from the roof, however we were also living only with foreigners.  So, we made a decision last month to move to a monastery (it's called a deir in Arabic), but it's actually just a student house.  It's in the "new" old city (Jadaida) and, in addition to the one kid in our program who already lived there, we're living with 6 or 7 Syrian students, and a dentist.  So, this basically means more Arabic in life, which is always a good thing.

Hopefully my next update will not take me two months to come up with, however no promises.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Turkey Day

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and it being the best holiday of the year, the Americans in the program couldn't let it pass without at least some sort of feast.  So, over the past few days we organized what turned into 16 people (only about half of which were American) to each cook or prepare something to bring to our friend Katie's house.  I cooked 11 pounds of mashed potatoes (which only cost around $3) after going on a hunt with my friend Chris to find a 27 pound turkey.  At the turkey shop, I was given a choice between a dead turkey and a live turkey.  I chose the former.

We finally got the turkey in the oven around 5 pm, so we weren't able to eat until about 11pm.  However, it turned out to be easily one of the most delicious, and definitely one of the most filling, Thanksgiving meals of my life, even though it was lacking the generally essential butternut squash and cranberry sauce (I'm pretty sure neither of those things can be found anywhere in Syria).  There was, among other things, turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, pasta (prepared by our resident Italian), fruit salad, regular salad and for dessert Arab sweets and bread pudding.  Not a bad spread, and definitely a good first Thanksgiving for all the Europeans.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Abiding for an Apartment

Finally, after a week attempting to register our lease of an apartment in Aleppo, which included visits to no less than 25 different offices, where generally a slightly overweight middle aged man would look frowningly at pieces of paper that supposedly had our information on them, nod, and indicate where we had to go next, we are almost completely registered in the Syrian system as residing here.  However, barring (hopefully) a few more formalities, I am now legally renting an apartment in the middle of the Old City in Aleppo, whose roof just happens to provide the best view of the city I have seen.  So, in lieu of verbosity, I give you PICTURES!

To the west, the New City, with the minarets of the largest mosque in Syria

The main minaret of the Umayyad Mosque

To the east, the rest of the Old City, with the Citadel on the right and the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque on the left
The New City during sunset
The citadel by day

And by night

The citadel with a mosque to the right

To those of you who have bothered to scroll down this far, I will mention that last night I went to a soccer game between Aleppo's Ittihad team and some team from Thailand.  Ittihad won, which means they're going to the finals of the AFC cup.  Basically Asia's soccer tournament for developing nations.  It was sweet and I think the U.S. should immediately realize how awesome soccer games are.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Day in Damascus

On Thursday, my friend from Egypt Chris and I decided to take a short trip to Damascus.  We arrived around 4 pm and explored the covered souq for a bit (which, I've come to realize, is actually not quite as big as the one in Aleppo) and then sought out an internet cafe.  After some help from two gorgeous Syrian girls, whom in hindsight we probably should have spent a bit more time chatting up, we found one with the less than friendly service and inflated prices consistent with tourist oriented venues.  Following this, we ate dinner and then met up with Chris' friend, Matt, who was staying at the Sheraton on business.  He was one of the most interesting people I have ever met.  He had studied extensively in the Middle East, written his thesis in Iraq, and now held a job which required almost monthly visits to Damascus.

While settling in his room and getting ready to go back out, he kept on talking about an "adventure" he was taking us on.  We left the hotel and managed to barely keep up with him as he flew through the souq looking for something seemingly important.  Finally he found what it was he wanted: olive oil soap, and after buying three pieces he lead us to the oldest hammam in Damascus.  This place was amazing.  We went in, put our valuables in a locker, and then took off our clothes and wrapped towels around our waists.  We then sat in the hottest sauna of my life until it became unbearable.  After that we went into an incredibly steamy room with faucets and sinks and washed with the soap we had just bought.  We were then lead into an adjacent room where a guy laid us down on the floor and rubbed our skin with what I am still convinced was steel wool.  The point, as far as I could tell, was to take off a layer of skin to expose a fresh one.  Following that rub down, we went to the massage chamber where the most jacked Syrian I have yet seen gave us all a four minute massage.  We did a final wash in the first steamy room and then rinsed down with frigid water to end the escapade.  After returning to the main room, one of the employees switched our towels quite discreetly, and then sat us down with some tea to bask in the glory that is a Damascene hammam.

Chris and I returned to Aleppo the next day on a "high speed" train, following a brief swim in the Sheraton pool.  On an unrelated note, I will finally be moving into an amazing apartment either later today or tomorrow, and will post pictures of the best view of the old city that I have ever seen, which just happens to be from our roof/terrace.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Weekend in the West

Amman is a pretty unique city in the Middle East.  It is in Jordan, one of the United States' biggest Arab allies, and thus has a prominent western influence.  However, there are also areas that are unmistakably Arab, lacking in the fast food joints, large malls, but where the delicious food and hospitality pervade.  Western Amman tends to be the more affluent, westernized area, whose inhabitants are often referred to as ajaanib, or foreigners (read: westerners), by those living in the more traditional eastern Amman.  This past weekend was an accidental exploration of some of the tagharrub, occidentalism, in Amman and the at times overbearing prevalence of specifically American culture.

Thursday night, my oldest cousin, Roba, invited me to go with her and her husband Musa to a "house party".  She called me while I was hanging out with some other cousins playing pool at an Irish pub, the likeness of which would easily be found in Boston.  The party turned out to be in someone's backyard, with a DJ who seemed to like drum and bass a bit too much.  There were a handful of European foreigners, but all the Arabs there were obviously among the richest in Jordan, and could easily have been European themselves.  I spent the majority of the time talking with Musa, who turns out to be one of the smarter guys I've ever met.  Roba was mostly socializing, so he and I spent the few hours talking about a number of different things, one of which was the economic divide in Amman.  He said that he had mentioned this to Roba, and that they, by mostly hanging out with the wealthy elite, were limiting themselves to maybe 100,000 people in a city of more than 2 million.

The following morning, cousins Ghassan, Omar, and Abed, their friend Sara, and I all went to a place called The Bake House for breakfast.  It was an American styled diner, and happened to be adjacent to a place called Waffle House, which I assume was essentially the same thing (for some reason shops and restaurants in Amman love having their competitors right next door, the most famous example of which is the two fresh juice stands across the street from each other downtown).  I was enthralled at the prospect of eating an American breakfast abroad, a luxury that is oft wanted while traveling.  A lavish breakfast is one of the few defining cultural characteristics of America, and is not missed until abroad, so this was pretty awesome.  One of my friends has had the idea of opening an American diner in Amsterdam for a little while, convinced that all the Brits will come flocking at 2 a.m. for some delicious pancakes, eggs and a never ending cup of coffee after toking up.

Friday was Ghassan's birthday, so we celebrated it by going to a place called ClimbAt Amman, which is a rock climbing facility.  Another destination for the rich, and apparently the latest fad in the Middle East, it was a bustling place with 60 foot climbing walls, over priced food and water, and a bunch of self-confident guys who seemed to be imbued with a desire to show off.  It was fun, but extremely exhausting.

My weekend, and stay in Amman, came to a close with a decidedly un-western activity: I met up with the Jordanian delegation from Seeds of Peace 2010 at a coffee shop where we drank tea and talked intellectually about the Middle East.  They were the first group of a hopefully large number of Seeds that I will be seeing throughout the coming months.

I will be traveling to Syria tomorrow.  If you're interested, you can check out a brief history of the Bashar al-Assad regime here, under which I will be living for the next nine months.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Embassy Entanglements

I arrived in Jordan on the 25th with only one thing that I absolutely had to do before traveling to Syria on October 4th:  I needed to go to the American Embassy to get more visa pages put in my passport (I'd say that means I travel a lot, but it actually just means that Arab visas take up way too much space.  The pages are divided into fourths for a reason guys).  I first went with my cousin Abed on Sunday in the early afternoon, only to be turned away in a very Arab fashion by the Jordanian guard with a curt "Tomorrow.  9:30".  Feeling slightly rebuffed and more than a little surprised we went back to the house.  I thought that going to the U.S. Embassy would involve being surrounded by a bastion of American efficiency, but apparently I was wrong.  I went to the website and realized that the services for American citizens department is only open for three hours every day, until 12:30 pm.  Thinking that maybe Arab bureaucracy had somehow osmotically influenced this particular Embassy, I looked at different Embassy websites only to discover that apparently the U.S. government despises providing convenient services abroad (on second thought, domestic governmental services are not exactly streamlined).  However, 3 days and $82 later, my passport now has 22 slightly uneven extra pages.  So who can complain?

Anyway, the stay in Jordan has otherwise been quite uneventful.  There isn't a whole lot to do when everyone remotely close to your age actually has school or work during the day.  Thus, my days have consisted of a healthy amount of sleep and internet surfing, rounded out with nightly outings with the cousins to various locations in Amman.  Syria will be a welcome challenge. Just like T-Rex says, travelling off the beaten path is the best way: