Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Lady Syria

Last month I took advantage of a week-long holiday by hopping the border over to Syria. I had been looking forward to this trip ever since I first decided to return to Jordan and was pleasantly surprised that I was able to visit so soon.

I learned a lot about the country while I was there, but for the sake of brevity I'll list a few interesting things:

1. Everyone I met was extremely hospitable and friendly. No Anti-Americanism to be found, aside from the obligatory criticisms of Bush.
2. They love their President.
3. The internet is harshly censored. Websites like facebook, yahoo, and are blocked, but people can usually access them using a proxy server. Hosting random foreigners (i.e. couchsurfing) is illegal, but a few people do it anyway. I'm grateful to the Syrians who gave me a place to stay, showed me around, shared their stories, and went out of their way to ensure that I had a wonderful time in their country.

Step aboard and come along with me on a picture tour of my amazing adventure!

Your tour guide, at the Citadel in Aleppo:

The Citadel, which served as a power base for the Muslims during the 12th-century Crusades.

View of Aleppo:

The souk (market) in Aleppo, arguably the best in all the Middle East

Danish Denniz, Syrian Adam, and Polish Tim chatting outside of Adam's cafe, where we all CouchSurfed. For more information on CouchSurfing see:

Adam's beautiful cafe:

My new best friend (she didn't even have a name when we met!):

So tiny!

At man-made Lake Al-Assad. We camped there the previous night and withstood an intense downpour. The facilities were inadequate to handle that kind of rain, so every tent, backpack, and sleeping bag was soaked. No one could sleep so we stayed up all night having soggy, silly, fun.

We went to checkout a nearby fortress and ran into a wedding party! They insisted we join their dance circle and pose for pictures with all the guests. This is typical Syrian hospitality. Their fascination with foreigners feels awkward at first, but is ultimately very endearing. I hope they're enjoying their wedding photos of us dirty backpackers.

Onward to Hama, a nice stopover town full of 13th-century norias (water wheels)

How great is this building?

The popular President Bashar al-Assad, whose image is ubiquitous. In case you can't tell, this is a hologram on the rear window of a car. What a cool cat.

How many pictures of Bashar can you find?

The window display of a photo shop. My Polish friends and I laughed until we cried at the blatant creepiness of this. A great gift for the pedophile in your life.

Hitching a ride, and of course stopping to let a herd of sheep cross the road.

Crac Des Chevaliers (or Qala'at Al-Hosn if you prefer Arabic), an incredible fortress built in 1031 by a Syrian emir and then expanded by the Crusaders in the 12th-century.

Damsel in Distress

The Deir Mar-Musa, or Monastery of Saint Moses, where travelers could stay for free so long as they did their share to help prepare meals, perform daily chores, and clean up after themselves.
Unfortunately this picture doesn't capture the dramatic, yet serene, desert mountains in which the monastery sits.

The ruins at Palmyra, magical at night (and completely open to be explored).

I woke up at the crack of dawn the next day in order to have the place all to myself.

This is, like, soooo Roman:

I loved every single second of this morning. These pictures don't even come close to capturing the magnificence of the place. I've seen my share of ruins, but there is something really special about Palmyra (Tadmoor in Arabic, in case you were wondering).

Men playing Backgammon on a side street in Damascus. Classic Syria.

Damascus at night:

This old chap recites classic Arabic stories at a cafe in Damascus...and I actually understood a few things!

Hey, does anybody know where I can go to put on some special clothes?
(Outside of the Ummayad Mosque they provide robes to wear before entering.)

Courtyard of the Ummayad Mosque:

And then inside...


Thanks for taking part in my journey through Syria. I hope you found it enjoyable. :)

I'll leave you with this final image of a floating hijab (headscarf) cube that I stumbled upon in random Damascus street.

Because you never know what's just around the corner...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Settlin' In...

This past month has been a whirlwind. I spent my first week in Amman settling into my new apartment (re: scrubbing away the filth from all surfaces). I’m thrilled with where I’m living—it’s spacious and situated at the end of a quiet street in a central part of town.

The building is full of young, active Jordanians. I live with two guys, an American and a Brit, who are also studying the language. My daily trip to school is a little bit out of the way, but luckily cabs are cheap and soon I'll have the public bus system figured out, Insha'allah (hopefully/God willing).

I’ve become good friend with my neighbor Hakim who runs his own tour company, Tropical Desert Trips, that leads excursions throughout Jordan. He’s an avid rock climber and has even installed a climbing wall on the side of our building. In addition to mastering Arabic, I’ll hopefully develop some climbing skills by the time I leave Jordan.

Hakim’s apartment is a popular hangout spot, and I’ve made countless new friends just going over there to say hi. The best times are when his Jordanian friends are visiting and they speak exclusively in Arabic. I’m not yet at the point where I comfortable joining in to their conversation, but it’s exciting to discover how quickly my listening comprehension is improving.

The Arabic that I study in my classes is the formal Modern Standard Arabic, also called fus-ha (meaning 'eloquent'). This Arabic is used in the media, academia, and in business settings. It is understood across the region by Arabic speakers from different countries. On the street, however, the locals of each country speak their particular dialect, or ammiya (meaning 'public'). To make a crude linguistic comparison, ammiya is to fus-ha what Ebonics is to proper English. In order to really understand what is going on around me and communicate with facility, I need to know ammiya. The good news is that with a foundation is fus-ha, ammiya is relatively easy. The vocabulary is limited and the grammar is very straightforward. Towards this effort, I am taking a two hour ammiya conversation class one evening a week. Once I have learned the basic grammar structures and learn the ammiya equivalents of my fus-ha vocublary, I should be on my way.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Wadi Rum

This weekend I went to the world famous Wadi Rum in the south of Jordan. I visited this incredible valley (language note: wadi = valley) on a group trip last year, but I felt unsatisfied being shuffled from site to site with thirty other students. This time around I was invited by my neighbor Hakim to partake in an easy-going weekend of camping, rock climbing, and overall reverence for the beauty of the desert.