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.