Thursday, September 28, 2006

Culture Shock: American Girl vs. Syrian Mother

Behind the Umayyad Mosque on the second night of Ramadan. The call to prayers immediately before Iftaar (the break-fast) was sounding as this photo was taken.

In planning for my fieldwork here in Damascus, I decided to start with a homestay to help me get my bearings as I start my research. I thought that the benefits would outweigh any disadvantages since a homestay would automatically increase my social network and force me to participate in society rather than isolate myself in an apartment with my iPod (Creative, actually…). In any case, the homestay would only be for a few months until my husband comes and we get a private apartment together.

Little did I know how restrictive social life in the Arab world can be. Everyone worries about me, not least of all my homestay mother (not to mention my real mom back home!), as I go about my daily business walking the streets of Damascus. Here are some tidbits of our culture clash when an independent American woman faces an Arab Muslim mother:

“Lindsay, don’t stay out too late, OK? Come home before 9:30.” 9:30! That hasn’t been my curfew since Junior High. It didn’t take me long to break that rule, since I consider myself a renter and not a daughter. “Lindsay, please, not after 10:30, OK?” We’ll see how long I can last. Unfortunately, for an anthropologist, culture doesn’t stop happening at 10:30, particularly in the Arab world where midday heat makes it more convenient to nap in the afternoon and stay up late, or during Ramadan when the city only truly wakes up from a zombie-like state after Iftaar (the break-fast) around 6pm.

On visitors in the house: “Lindsay, go in your room. The plumber is here to fix the water.” “Oh, it’s OK, I don’t mind. He doesn’t bother me.” “Lindsay, go in your room! He will see you.” “Really, it’s OK, I don’t mind.” “Lindsay, in your room!” Sometimes it feels like you are being imprisoned. Really, it’s not important that I don’t mind, it’s that she minds that there is a grown woman in her house that men can look at. She wants to protect her reputation for respectability and not become renowned for the young American girl on display in her home.

“Lindsay, go in your room. Is OK? My in-laws are here.” “Actually, I don’t want to go in my room, but I suppose I can study.” “Mmm, OK.” Later I found out that she was protecting me from their interrogation. They think that all American Jews are spies for Israel and wanted to ask me questions about it.

On shoes and clothing in the house: “Lindsay, don’t walk around the house in white socks. They will be so hard to get clean!,” “Oh, don’t worry about it, I don’t mind if my socks aren’t white on the bottom.” “Lindsay, put slippers on!” Of course, I think I am doing enough taking my shoes off at the door as far as rules go. And I also put on the special bathroom slippers every time I have to go to the restroom, just so I won’t get castigated. “Lindsay, here are the bathroom slippers. Use them.” Secretly, I take them off as I enjoy my private moments on the toilet.

One day, immediately after I had gotten out of the shower and went into my room to get dressed, a knock on my door: “Hhhhh, Lindsay, don’t walk under the fan when you are not dressed! You’ll catch a cold!” It is 90 degrees outside. Even in the moments when you think you have privacy (i.e., putting clothes on), there is someone watching and judging.

As I hung my clothes on the patio clothesline after my first attempt at using a Syrian washing machine, “Lindsay, put your underwear on the inside line and the clothes on the outside. That way men on the street can’t see your underclothes.” We live on the seventh floor.

A few miscellaneous items:
- “You want to shower today? Again? You just showered yesterday!” Water is a scarce resource in the Middle East. Particularly after the recent Lebanon war, Syria’s water supplies are stretched to the limit with the influx of refugees and sending humanitarian aid to Lebanon.
- “Turn the hot water heater off after you shower. It is dangerous.” True, but this advice came after I had somehow successfully been turning the hot water heater off without instruction for a week.
- “Don’t go in the elevator if there is a man in it. Take the stairs.”
- “Don’t talk to the neighbors. If they ask, tell them you are a friend of the family.”
- “Lindsay, put olive oil on your yogurt. It makes it better. Why don’t you put oil on?”
- “Drink tea with your breakfast. It makes the food taste less dry.”

Perhaps some of this advice is useful, it certainly serves to socialize a child into becoming a proper member of Syrian society. But as a grown woman who is paying to have a place to stay and not to lose her freedom, it can become suffocating. No matter how many times I tell her not to worry about me, that I am responsible for myself and that I am perfectly comfortable and safe here, she will worry about me just as she worries about her own daughter’s reputation and behavior.

To be fair, though, my homestay mother has also helped me with my Arabic, my colloquial speech, in translating my interview worksheets, in providing field data (knowingly and unknowingly), and she has food for me every day. It’s a shame I haven’t been able to separate social expectations of a Syrian girl in a Muslim family from our professional relationship! Such is fieldwork: intensive, intimate, non-stop, you can’t escape. This is how we work.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Carwatch Syria 2006

A GMC S.U.V. displaying an artistic rendering of Hafiz al-Asad in Sha'laan, Damascus.

Since Bashar came to power he has fashioned himself an ostensible reformer, but his line has consistently been "economic reform first - political reform later." Since my last visit to Damascus two years ago, I wasn't sure if I believed that he was seriously interested in either type of reform.

A Ford in front of the national museum.
But having returned, it seems that economic changes are actually taking place and beginning to have some effect. New cars of all different makes and models are conspicuous on Damascene streets, from the wealthier areas in the north of the city such as Malki, Abu Roumaneh, and Mezze, and even into the lower-class southern suburbs such as Zahira Jadeeda and the Palestinian neighborhoods (referred to as camps in Arabic, but these have become neighborhoods as much as any other area of town). I have seen Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Kia, and Hyundai in evidence along with the more traditional Peugeot, Fiat, and Suzuki models that were common here before. In fact, there is a new Hyundai dealership on the back (north) side of Jabal Qasioun (Qasioun Mtn.). Most surprising, however, are the American-make automobiles such as Ford, GM, and Chevrolet that were illegal only a few years ago.

A classic Dodge in Baramka. Note the Hizballah/Bashar poster in the back windshield.

Legal changes were purportedly instituted as long ago as 2001 to allow for the importation of foreign automobiles into Syria to help modernize the aging fleet of cars here. An incentive was introduced which dramatically reduces the importation tax to private individuals who are replacing an old, defunct car with a new one. But it has only been within the past few years that these changes have begun to show their fruit in the Syrian street. These new cars now drive alongside the Suzuki minibuses and taxis, the pre-Asad 1950s and 60s classic American cars that have been carefully preserved til now, and the donkey- and horse-driven carts from which vendors sell wares from tomatoes and watermelon to gas and heating oil.

Horse-driven cart outside the military museum.

In addition to these changes, it seems that a small construction boom is occurring here. New shops are being built in the old city with wood paneling and track lighting, a westernized style that is beginning to enjoy favor here. New restaurants have opened in older and lower-to-middle class areas of the city that are more reminiscent of the modernized and westernized stylings found in Jordan than the stale Soviet influences that were prevalent here before. The Four Seasons Hotel Damascus, opened just in the past year, is a dominant part of the city's updating skyline.

The Four Seasons, Damascus.
The proud owners of a new shop in Qaymariyya, Old City, Damascus.

It remains to be seen whether Syria will come to resemble other countries of the Levant such as Lebanon and Jordan that have not been so economically isolated over the past two decades, and also whether Syrians desire to add any particular "Syrian character" to their economic development. Unfortunately, it appears that these developments are only a carrot for the average citizen in front of the big stick of the regime, which still allots the big industries such as cellular technology to members of the family or its extensions.