Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ramazan Öztan - Damascus, Syria

Ramazan spent the summer of 2010 learning Arabic in Damascus.

I was reading the memoir of a Turkish poet where he talks about his travels to Paris. And he says when someone is in Paris, it is very difficult to keep his/her friends posted since Paris has a lot to offer and one has only limited time to fully explore the city, the Parisian life, and the French countryside. I think it is a proper analogy to say that my days in Syria had the same effect. I spent two months in the country, saw much, learned a lot, enjoyed Syrian life, and the Middle East has still a lot to offer.
The first week was kind of a hassle in Damascus. First, I stayed in a hostel and tried to find a proper place to live for the next two months in the city and then completed the registration process in Higher Language Institute of the University of Damascus. After having walked the busy streets of Damascus for couple days, we (Ben from Utah and Kivanc from Turkey) finished the registration and found a place to live! Our house was a nineteenth-century Damascene house in Souk Saroujah, a neighborhood very close to downtown and old city. The first week in the house was an experience in and of itself. We had some bug problems in couple of the rooms, which seems to be a common problem in Damascus unless you prefer to stay in modern flats in the Mezzah neighborhood. Our house was at the end of a dead-end street surrounded by many more narrow streets. The fact that some of the house in the neighborhood are collapsing and some big buildings are being built just two blocks away from us led me to question the future of this lovely neighborhood and whether I will be able to find this house intact if I happen to come back to the neighborhood after five years or so.  
As for the real purpose of this trip, i.e. learning Arabic in Damascus, I have to say that I was quite amazed by the quality of the program and teachers at University of Damascus. I spent two months at school, made lots of friends, met lots of scholars with similar academic interests, and learned enough Arabic to chat for a good 20 minutes with the taxi driver who drove us from Palmyra to Homs. Each section of the Arabic program at the school lasted only a month. It was amazing to see how much material they covered in a month there, which was exactly what I needed. It is clear that knowledge of Turkish helped me particularly vocabulary-wise; at least 30 per cent of vocabulary we learned everyday were also used in modern Turkish. As I said, the program were great and there were many international students from across the world: the particular make-up of international population was European, mainly Italian, Spanish, French… many Turkish students were there for Arabic as well as an ok number of Americans. The classes are held Sundays to Thursdays from 9 am to 1 pm. They are really intensive and once I was at home, I was already burnt out and preferred to relax.  Yet, I was out once in a day at least for couple hours to drink tea and chat with friends or to do shopping for dinner.
Let me tell more about fun stuff instead of the progress of my Arabic. Syrian culture is interesting. It shares a lot with Turkish culture. Turkish music and soap operas are hits to the extent that whenever I tell a Syrian on the streets that I am Turkiya they say ‘Murad Alemdar,’ the protagonist of this Turkish soap opera that portrays the state-within-a-state in Turkey with anti-American, anti-Israeli themes. No wonder why it is popular around here. It gets little bit scary though when the kids on the streets run around pretending to be ‘Alemdar.’
I tried to travel every weekend when it was possible. Once, for instance, with a large group of friends, we hit the road for Palmyra, ancient Roman city, the place of tourist attraction in Syria. It was quite fascinating and the cooler weather around the ruins added more enjoyable moments to our walks around the place. Then with couple friends we took a taxi to Homs, a town in middle Syria, a less touristy taste of the Syrian culture. The real destination though was the Krak des Chevaliers, one of the best preserved examples of a crusader castle from the eleventh century. It was indeed very well preserved absolutely worth a visit to the extent that I was simply shocked when the microbus dropped us next to it. Every theme that the Middle Ages remind me found reality when I was walking through the castle. I also found time to travel and we went to Aleppo, a city in northern Syria close to Turkish border. Aleppo is much less touristy than Damascus but has different things to offer to visitors. The citadel was among one of them with its commanding position over the city. The traditional bazaar, i.e. Aleppo souk was also less touristy with fewer instances of harassment and more examples of traditional Aleppan culture. We visited some churches and enjoyed the cosmopolitan air of the city.
Ramazan Hakki Oztan: Spent the summer of 2010 in Damascus, Syria, learning Arabic.
Pic 1: A view from the Hamidiye Souq in Damascus; Pic 2: A pic of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus; Pic 3: Ruins in Palmyra, background an old Arab castle; Pic 4: Temple of Bel in Palmyra; Pic 5: Aleppo from the castle

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