Monday, October 7, 2002

The composition of the class has changed; some students have gone to a higher class and others have gone in the opposite direction. Among the new arrivals, there are suddenly five or six Turkish men and women who are practicing Muslims (recognizable by their hijab) and others who are not; as for the boys, I couldn’t tell if they are practicing or not.

What are all these (mostly) young people doing here?

They are preparing to study at the university or to work in companies where they will be asked to speak Arabic; there are Syrians from abroad who want their children to learn their mother tongue or to do some of their studies here. I told you about the wives. I must be one of the few (no, there is Greta) who studies “for nothing”, for the pleasure of reading Arabic literature, and there is also Boul (Pavel becomes Paul becomes Boul – there is no “au” in Arabic and there is no P, hence Baris for the city of light) who studies to study.

You tell me about an earthquake, but I don’t have access to the news. A building did collapse because its basement was tapped by caves, C. tells me; Bush would have announced his intention to put us on his list. The news is received with a certain indifference; this project has been announced more than once.

Isolation is a bit painful: mail is slow – but not much more so than at home: a letter takes a good week – random e-mails, very expensive telephone, only for international calls whose rate has nevertheless dropped by 20%, but besides that there are so many advantages to living here. Since I’m going to study Arabic for a few years, I’m thinking of coming to Damascus for eight months a year (I’m avoiding the summer).

I’m already less tired in class and in the fog of Arabic broadcast by our teacher, I’m starting to make out some vocabulary silhouettes. I think I am making progress.

Tuesday 8 October 2002 (evening)

Bosra, a two-hour bus ride from Damascus, is more than its grandiose theater that hosts a festival in September; there is also the old city, with a huge reservoir, a basilica, a huge and well-preserved Roman hammam, mosques, one of which is said to have seen the Prophet pass by, etc.

I made the trip on Sunday with a luscious Brazilian girl from my class; on the way out, we were side by side, but on the way back, sitting at the very back of the bus, we took a seat at the windows. We wanted to speak Arabic. Three gentlemen came to sit between us; the one on my right sat at the front of his seat and remained very uncooperative during the whole trip. More or less the same for the man sitting to the left of M., but with the one in the middle it was a different matter. He made us do a serious mouradja (revision), all this in laughter and teasing, not very correct dress for a woman told me the look of a woman  traveler.

The music

There is a record store (NAI) in the Shalan neighborhood where I found something to quench my thirst for classical and good Arabic music. I was about to go to Brussels because I missed my CDs so much. You should never imagine that you can totally immerse yourself in another culture and manage to cut yourself off from your own.

The classes

It depends on the day; sometimes I go out on all fours, sometimes fresh as a rose. Today, I could feel my dark circles deepening under my jowls; the beautiful Siberian woman, whose beauty I never tire of admiring, has returned to my great relief.

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Again the classes

I was quite jealous of the ease with which the Turks read the texts. Today, it was a revolution. I learn that the Turks have four years of Arabic behind them and that they are bored to death with us beginners. They want to leave.

Opening to the world

Suddenly, it’s like Christmas: my friend has installed a new box to receive satellite TV and radio stations and I will finally know what is happening in the world. I can receive vrt but not rtbf, France musique, culture etc. At least 200 channels in total.

These are costs that my landlady could have made, but whether it is by avarice or poverty, she leaves everything up to me.

The weather

October weather; at night, the coolness forces me to cover myself with a sheet. During the day, it is still very hot, with occasional bursts of relative coolness.

I always have my morning coffee on the balcony; a turtle-dove, perched on the neighbor’s clothesline, sends a feather onto my plate.

I still don’t know the kids next door; through the hammered glass I saw one this morning putting on his pants. The cats continue to come and go.

The food

It seems that I am beginning to be accepted because the consumption of grapes, crunchy with freshness, washed in tap water, has been done with impunity.

Thursday, October 10, 2002

The counter at the window

When you go to get your visa to come and visit me, you will probably be surprised that you have to do the transaction through the window. I thought it was for security reasons, but I see that it is done here too, for example at the Saudi Arabian consulate, which is very close to my institute.

End of my second week of classes. The Turks have been relocated to a place more worthy of them and our class has shrunk accordingly.

I got conjunctivitis from having the fan in my eyes and it can hurt! I will try to get some eye drops.

I’m flattened; the whole week without going out the door, spent studying.

Tonight, old town and hookah; picture of Papa Joseph and his treasure den.

Thursday night

The eye drops, damn. The dodgy pharmacist in the old town that I had already inaugurated during my previous stay, refuses to give me anything and gives me the name of a doctor and a street, telling me that I need it. I go to Zak’s and ask him if he has camomile; he agrees with the pharmacist and tells me to see a doctor. I go up to Joseph’s (photos) and he tells me the same thing.

Two kilometers away, I finally find my ophthalmologist; I sit down in a very clean waiting room. I fraternize with two young women (mouradja, professor). A fashionable man goes before everyone else with his son. A shady man with a shady son enters when it is their turn and leaves.

We end up in the doctor’s office with three patients and their companions. The examination of the son of the fashionable  man (the cup of coffee that he receives proves it to me abundantly; there is a whole code in the cup of coffee that one receives or not according to your relations with your host), I thus said that the examination of the son of that man finishes when suddenly we are all in pitch darkness: a short circuit is the cause; the small girl of one of the young women is examined with the electric torch and me too. I confess to the shampoos with Aleppo soap and the dose of pepper that I administered to myself by rubbing my eyes after spicing a dish, as well as the long hours spent bent over my books. He tells me that studying is good for the brain and less for the eyes. I will see him again on Monday because he wants to examine my glasses. Ah! and he speaks English.

The two young women take me to the pharmacy and there I receive such a warm welcome that I am quite moved; the pharmacists speak French, and well, it is “if you need anything, don’t hesitate to come”. It’s something else than the old grumpy guy from the old town who nevertheless did me a great service.

I’m too tired to go to the hookah and I’ll moderate my reading until Monday.

On my way back, I go for a pizza; in front of the counter a man unfolds his carpet and makes his prayer; he washed his feet because he wore sandals.

They tell me: the pizza is not good, we will make it again. I opt for a tabbouleh.

Illa lika; I’ll try to post this with my bad eyes too.

friday october 11, 2002

The white tornado just left; it disturbed the only cockroach in the house, which came out of its hiding place where the chlorox must have bothered it.

I take it and put it at the door on the balcony.

Ali (the Tornado) has been helping me with my homework for tomorrow; don’t think our day off is really off. I’m taking advantage of the brief respite the eye drops are giving me to write to you.

So, this gentleman who, at the ophthalmologist’s, passed by without even stopping in front of the receptionist and opened the door of the office without knocking, what’s the deal? The question has been on my mind since last night.

Probably the doctor told him: you can come by whenever you want; no need to queue in the waiting room.

Here, no one would think of protesting as I do at home: hey, I’m before you; to each his turn.

Last Sunday in Bosra, M. and I were emptied from a carriage whose price we had just negotiated (unsuccessfully); we were already settled when the coachman made us get off and to our great indignation, which we expressed loudly, he left with another customer. That’s how it is.

I’m stopping because the drops are starting to lose their effect and I still have to work a bit; we have a dictation tomorrow. At least, since the departure of the nice Turks, I won’t hear anymore: me, I made zero mistakes, me too, while me, it’s four minimum.


The system of four days of classes, followed by a day “without”, then a Saturday of classes and a Sunday “without” is finally good. I can’t see myself holding out for five days in a row. And in two “no” days we would be in danger of slacking off.


The other night (it was 8:30 p.m.) in the ophthalmologist’s office, the atmosphere was so pleasant. The chic man and his son, the two young women and the little girl, me getting my eyes watered while lying on the table and explaining to the chic man that I was studying the language because I wanted to read poetry in Arabic (I only reveal my own literary ambitions to a few). And when the blackout came, I didn’t hear a “shit”; the lamps and candles were brought out. And as I told you last time, the little girl and I (who were dreading being fired) went through the flashlight exam. The drops seem to be helping, but I’m going back tomorrow.

I have never felt such peace; I am bathed in compatibility. In the evening, the square in front of the Umayyad Mosque is practically deserted. The air is so soft that I can’t feel my body. Do you think, db, that I have found what I was not looking for?

The region has its terrible tragedies, but I live totally in the here and now.


Caveat emptor. It is not only the merchants who are thieves in this souk, the cabs that we find at the door of the souk, too.

I get into a cab, then another, and I get out each time I am told the price: double the maximum I pay and in which a tip is included. I get into a third car; I give the address and the maximum I pay; the driver gives me desperate looks, but I insist: it’s 50 pounds (one Euro), not a cent more. In the end, he manages to make me understand that he is not a cab driver. I apologize.

I end up finding a legit taximan. Complain to the police? Out of the question. A fellow student of mine did it for 10 pounds (40 cents), as a matter of principle.

I went to read my mail: today impossible on hotmail. I will be here on June 28; I will only come back here, if Dios quiere, in September to do a second year. Spending the summer in Syria is unimaginable for me.

The other day I timed my connection: 40 minutes to read two posts, reply to them, upload my post and four photos to my mailbox and try to reply (in vain) to db’s kind message.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

This will be my last posting for a while.

In the month I’ve been here, I’ve made a lot of progress in Arabic, especially since I started taking classes.

I have a lot of work to do and I don’t have the energy to fight against recalcitrant connections anymore.

I’ll be picking up my hotmail and compuserve email once a week.

Sunday October 20, 2002-10-20

No matter how much we run away, our sorrows catch up with us; the approach of a fateful date, of a painful anniversary is as difficult as the dreaded day.

Two years ago, in a gloomy staircase of the subway, a dragonfly- butterfly, as he liked to describe himself, crashed; has one ever seen a dragonfly or a butterfly crash? Charles, my ex-husband.

It is commonly said: life goes on; it is by limping that one continues the road.

Enough melancholy, let’s come back to the here and now, to Damascus.


It is still hot, but the noses do not bleed any more. At night, we cover ourselves because it is cool. The laundry always dries in a flash.

The first real rain (five minutes), I welcomed it like the sweetest music. You get jaded quickly: by the second one, I was already not jumping for joy, but I said it, I will never curse it as long as I am here. It’s like my magic fountain; sometimes when I go to Nafura, I just forget to say hello to it. You should never take things for granted although fountains are more constant than human beings.

A small scene from everyday life

If I travel by microphone, it is for the pleasure of being with people. The other evening, the door is blocked, retained by its padding; we finally succeed in opening it, but the problem is repeated each time the door is opened. Without a word, the driver hands a screwdriver and a screw to a traveller and this one makes the repair.

My eyes

In all, four visits to the ophthalmologist; his waiting room is most interesting. Many people from the village, in particular a woman with a scarf tied behind her head. She has a brick complexion, prominent cheekbones and willing lips. Not the kind of personon whose feet  I’d like to step on.

A man in a keffiyeh drinks from the jug like a gargoyle, without touching.

In the office it’s always a mess; I love it, but I lose my zen when the secretary keeps getting my appointments wrong, does not know at what time the doctor will arrive, when I’ll get my spare glasses, etc.

No, I don’t have a brain tumor,” he says after a very painful fundus; I just need new glasses. This week I should be able to see normally again. The optician was educated in Canada and speaks very good French.

My … do you really want to know? My hair

My hair is now pissy from being oiled and stripped. I bought a turban with a little pearl, but I don’t dare to wear it except when the cotton candy goes all over the place. And re-rinse is not going to help. The fish are rotting out of my head; I am an Aries though.

The classes

You ask me if we study history etc. Please! Don’t you think we have enough with grammar? I occasionally take a careless look at the books and think I’ll never get through it. Why not learn knitting instead?

Sometimes, when the teacher tells us something, our interpretations make us laugh: kèskidi? I think he’s talking about the signs of the zodiac (with the bull and the ram), no, he’s talking about horns, no, we don’t know. Nevertheless, and I don’t mind repeating myself, I recognize some grammatical terms now, but the notions they represent sometimes escape me.

So, if you come here, don’t forget to bring a grammar book with the Arabic terminology.

In the corner at the back I am the one with the red hair

And my poems?

I read them to Zak, who liked them, but since I’m also a good customer…

Friday, October 25, 2002

Sorry Pascal for not meeting your expectations of exoticism. Damascus is a modern city with old neighborhoods, but people don’t live in tents, not even in the Yarmouk refugee camp.

Last night, I took a trip to the city and took some pictures of Damascus by night.

I took you into the big room of the hammam where you can

reception, rest and waxing.

Next Monday, I’ll take you into the large marble room where you lie down, get washed and massaged. I went back last Monday to get scrubbed and it was worth it. This time, instead of putting me on the plate, the washer made me sit on the floor and it is in this uncomfortable position that she did my washing.

Without waxing or shampooing, the afternoon was uneventful. Everybody was happy to be photographed for the internet except two French girls, mother and daughter, who refused to show their breasts for my friends back home.

Afterwards, Palestinian evening on a square of the city; an orchestra plays and sings patriotic songs and others very beautiful. At 6 pm, we wait for a group of young Europeans who have come to Palestine, Syria and Iraq to testify for peace. As the group does not count Belgians I leave towards 19H30 because it is cold. It must be said that we are in autumn and that we have only 28° during the day; in the evening, it is chilly. The stalls of the merchants tell the change of season because I see wool  appearing.

Wednesday I went to my optician to get my new glasses. And here I ask for your attention, because you will see that the world is microscopic.

He said: I’m going to Paris for a congress (BTW, the ophthalmologist is in America, also for a congress). And where are you staying? In Versailles (it’s near the author’s sister), and then I’m going to my aunt’s in V. (that’s at my sister’s); and where does your aunt live? In the street E. (the street of my sister!), and to which number? No, not at my sister’s, but close by.

Some information about Syria

You feel patriotic here; people love their country and are proud of it.

I got the following figures from Encarta.

In 2001, the literacy rate was 87.8%.. Primary education is free and compulsory.

The main agricultural products are barley, wheat, tobacco and vegetables. Grapes, olives, and citrus fruits are produced in the oases. Intensively cultivated cotton is almost the only crop for export.

Livestock is very important (sheep, goats, cows and chickens). No fishing or forestry.

There is oil and gas; as for industry, it is specialized in food processing and textiles. The country also produces cement, tobacco and leather. Syrian handicrafts: brocades, carpets, marquetry and metal work.

I am told that brocades are produced by Muslims, metals were produced by Jews and marquetry by Christians. As there are only 50 Jews left, I assume that their activity has been taken over by the Muslims or Christians.

Last night

Well, I wasn’t very proud of my Europeans; I was smoking my weekly hookah when a bunch of drunken Spaniards came down the stairs to my terrace. They make a big fuss at the merchant’s whose store is next to my chair; he tells them that he has a sister in Bilbao, and to me, he tells me that he has a brother in Ghent, to Maria that his fiancée is Brazilian like her, etc.

The descendants of the Duke of Alba bang on a brass tray and hold it above their heads. Everyone (us Muslims and the like) opens their eyes; it is true that to share this euphoria one would have to have drunk as much as they have, which is obviously not the case for me since I have been living a life of abstinence. This kind of scene must be extremely rare here. The merchant tells me with a smile that they didn’t buy anything and that they covered him with scandal.

The Syrians I see have a quiet and warm dignity, without stiffness. Drunkenness is really nothing to write home about.

This post wouldn’t be complete without…

my hair. I took it to the hairdresser of a big hotel who greeted me with a clear Bonjour Mèdème while wiggling his butt as no homosexual in our country does anymore. Unfortunately, his French stopped there because he immediately passed me on to an English-speaking colleague who said, twisting the corner of his mouth: where did they do that to you?

Anyway, they are now brassy and I’m not fooling anyone anymore: it was never their color. It’s obvious I had a rinse.

Now I’m not talking about it anymore. I promise, I swear.

And my Arabic?

When I speak my crude literary Arabic (with all the endings) people understand me, but they are amused because nobody speaks like that.

Big difference with Morocco where, apart from people who have done high school, nobody understands you in the street.

The life of a student is uneventful, even in Damascus. It’s hard work, it’s anxious about exams (in two months), it sometimes makes you want to quit and go home. And except for the Turks (there are some left and they are talented) (see photo of incomplete class), we are all in the same situation at different times.

By the way, I didn’t see any red-light district. I have seen girls who were no longer virgins in a big hotel, but on the street, certainly not.

There might be homosexuals who are more or less whoring around; I read that in a book.

When at the Shams café I see the waiter making a terrible grimace , I look and I find: there is a homosexual couple sitting on the terrace, Europeans, of course.

Alcohol is not forbidden, but it is discreet, I hear that there are places where they sell it. Yes, there are Muslims who drink. That’s not surprising, but not in public.

Drug dealers are executed. And I, who am against the death penalty, agree.

Bin Laden is not popular here. He is not a good Muslim. Moreover, for 9/11, he was in cahoots with the Americans. And this hypothesis does not seem to me to be so far-fetched ….

When Patricia (a French convert) has time, we’ll put together an Islam for Dummies, but since she’s even busier than I am, I can’t promise you that it will be soon. In preview: the veil is a custom. Religion simply states that a woman should only show her face and hands, hence the hijab (headscarf) and the frock coat buttoned at the collar.

There are women who hide half their face, either by biting off a piece of their veil or by tying it behind. Some cover themselves completely; it is true that they probably rarely go out.

At the hammam, I was too tired to bring my camera. The hammam is still Capua. The room is reminiscent of an orientalist painting. We smoked hookah in every corner.

My neighbor tells me that he goes there with his friends around 10 o’clock in the evening and that they spend the night eating, drinking tea and telling jokes. They come out around 4 a.m.

Speaking of smoking, I’m on a real crusade with my friends and acquaintances who smoke like chimneys. We don’t see many old people, but I don’t know the life expectancy figures.

Next week, on November 5th, Ramadan begins. It is a period of purification. Those who smoke, smoke less or stop. Those who drink alcohol, stop drinking. One restrains oneself from having bad thoughts and one is more charitable.

As you know, we do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. At the institute, we will not even be given the half-hour respite that civil servants get. The schedule remains the same.

On Sunday, we go with the institute on an excursion to Homs, Tartous and an island. I think we will also see the krak of the crusaders. I will tell you about it and you will have your pictures.

A few views of the streets and souks