Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reflections on Ramadan

Ramadan light decorations ("Ramadan Kareem" they say, Honorable Ramadan).
Now that I have experienced Ramadan in the Middle East I thought I should describe what it’s all about here. Ramadan is, of course, the month in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset as an expression of submitting the body and mind to God’s will. Each night, family and friends get together to break the fast, called iftaar, from the word for breakfast (interestingly, the English term for breakfast has the same semantic root, in that we break the fast each morning from the previous evening’s sleep). This year iftaar fell between 5:30 and 5:00 p.m. I was lucky to have the pleasure of breaking the fast with both local families and groups of friends.

Damascus, the usually bustling capital city, has a different rhythm during Ramadan. The streets are still crowded with cars and pedestrians during the day, but come 4:00 p.m. the streets, alleyways, and sidewalks start to empty as everyone rushes home to eat. At 4:45 or 5:00 p.m., you could take a stroll around the city and not see one car drive by or person walking the sidewalk. The city becomes a near ghost town. If you peek into the few shops that still have workers in them you will usually see a quiet group sitting around eating together, too focused on the meal to worry about talking. This tranquil atmosphere is a great feature of Ramadan: it is one of the few times Damascus goes quiet.
Sharing iftaar outside a shop.
One of the nicest rituals in my Ramadan experience was breaking the fast with the shopkeepers in the souq. Each night, they would order food from a nearby restaurant in the Old City (alternating their patronage between different restaurants), and one of the boys would go to pick it up. Another might run to buy a stack of Arabic bread from a bakery stall. I learned a lot about the good local restaurants this month and about the names of many Arabic foods I wasn’t familiar with. There are, of course, the traditional favorites like kebseh (roasted chicken on seasoned rice), baamiya (okra with lamb in tomato sauce), and fetteh (bread and chickpeas in yogurt sauce), but I also got to try many soups and meat dishes that I had never ordered before. All of these main dishes are accompanied by the usual mezze fair that many Americans are familiar with from Turkish or Middle Eastern restaurants in the U.S. such as hummus and baba ganoush. A large tray would be laid out on a stool so that everyone can pull up a chair around it. In the Arabic style, everybody eats off the same serving plates, scooping up food with a piece of bread or spoon.

Since I wasn’t part of the planning process for dinner, I usually brought along some baklawa or other bakery goods for an after-dinner treat. Early on in my stay here (since Ramadan started only a week after I arrived), my contributions to the dinner table would often be chastised by my hosts because of their sense of Arab hospitality and honor (“Why did you bring sweets? We already have sweets of our own!”). Fortunately, I knew I was becoming a staple in their social life when they started to accept my attempts at reciprocity without question.

A sometimes frustrating aspect of Ramadan is that productivity comes to a near standstill. I was unlucky enough to be looking for a house during this holiday season, and I had to wait weeks for a house that I found that I was originally told would be ready in one week, which turned into three before the finishing touches on the renovations were completed.

And don’t think that Ramadan ends with the last day of fasting. This week is Eid, the holiday celebrating the completion of Ramadan. Although the fast is over, this week is a national holiday and most workplaces and businesses are closed. I took my pants to the cleaners on Satuday and didn’t have time to pick them up the next day, which means they were stuck in the cleaners' for the week until Eid ended. But Friday is also a weekend day here, and many shops remain closed for the Muslim day of communal prayer. My pants were at a cleaners’ shop in Bab Touma, a Christian area, so all I could do was hope that a Christian runs the shop and would open Friday to reclaim my treasured jeans and khakis. As it happened, the shop didn't open til Saturday. With Damascus so multi-colored religiously, it is impossible to predict store hours. The owner could be a Christian who takes Saturday and Sunday as his weekend, or he could follow the national and Muslim practice of taking Friday and Saturday off, or he could be a true businessman and remain open both Friday and Saturday. In the end, it sometimes feels that a month of low productivity is followed by a week of zero productivity. We Americans are unaccustomed to allowing ourselves weeks on end of mere visits and socialization. Particularly as a researcher, I sometimes feel that my research is floundering because there are no time commitments during Ramadan. I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that I am supposed to be following the rhythm and flow of life here, not to change it and make appointments of my own.
Plenty of new toys to enjoy during Eid (no matter that this set is meant for a birthday).
In other ways, Eid is reminiscent of Christmas in the U.S. First, of course, there is the week off of school and work. Second, kids and youth roam the streets wearing fresh new clothes. For the youth, one might say that Eid is a time for checking each other out and showing off for each other their attractiveness. Sequined and bedazzled hijabs adorn women all over the city, and some (Christian) girls break out their short skirts for the holiday break. Children receive gifts and sometimes money, so that the few shops that you will see open in the souq are selling toys and fireworks for kids. Makeshift amusement parks pop up in each neighborhood, with swings, mini ferris wheels, and merry-go-rounds operated by the muscle of young men. All in all, it is a time to reaffirm social connections in a society where such connections are already strong and constantly maintained through visits and hospitality. Many of the foreign students take Eid as an opportunity to travel within and without the country while they are off school. But interestingly, for the locals, Eid is about seeing more of the people they see every day.
Makeshift "amusement park" in Bab as-Salaam, Old City.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Seeming Contradictions of Life in Damascus

I was speaking to a young German student the other day here and he was expressing to me his surprise at what he calls “the mix of culture here.” He was feeling really perplexed by his expectations of Syria, this Muslim country, and what actually goes on here.

It’s true, Syria is obviously a Muslim country. The majority of its inhabitants are Muslim of some color or other – Sunni, Shi’i, Sufi, and some consider ‘Alawis Muslims too. Then there is the 10% of the country that is Christian, along with atheists and secularists from families of different religious backgrounds.
A billiards club.
Some of the things that might surprise a Westerner coming here are the leisure activities of average Syrians. The past couple weekend nights, I have endured visits to what any American or European would consider mediocre clubs in the middle of the night (usually from midnight to four in the morning) in order to see what it is that young people do here. The night usually begins around 10 p.m., when the oriental shops close and the shopworkers go home. Then young men and women partake in a few hours of smoking hasheesh, sometimes from a hand-fashioned pipe or sometimes mixed into a broken-down cigarette. By midnight, we can get ready to go to a nightclub, where the musical offerings range from American top 40 hip-hop to Latin, Trance, House, and Techno, and of course the requisite Arabic pop from artists such as the longtime favorite Amr Diab. As an American sitting back and observing these nightlife rituals, sometimes I can’t help laughing at the songs and dances that the locals love. People go crazy for the remix of “I Will Survive” and stay out on the dance floor during a nasal rendition of the Happy Birthday song.

Perhaps also surprising to an Western observer of Syria is the amount of drugs and alcohol that both Muslims and Christians here imbibe. Last night, a close associate of mine drank to the point of alcohol poisoning, falling down every few seconds all over the club. It took four of his friends to pick him up over and over as they finally made their way to the door to take him home. Perhaps the fact that many of the cabs that passed by drove off as soon as they saw our friend’s condition has something to do with values and expectations of proper behavior. Taxis in New York, Boston, and L.A. recognize that it is part of their social mandate to take home intoxicated individuals after the “Don’t Drink and Drive” campaigns of the last decades. Unfortunately, this man’s tolerance for alcohol is so high that he didn’t vomit, so his body had to endure the alcohol poisoning until the next day when it subsided. This is a story that might sound all too familiar to youth and parents back in the U.S. But this is Syria.

Another thing that might be surprising to observers of “Muslim societies” is Muslim dress here. Of course you can see a variety of Muslim dress as you walk the streets of Damascus. Some men wear the traditional dishdasha, the long, white, high-collared one-piece garments with thin pants underneath that are especially comfortable in the heat. Women can be seen wearing galabiyyas, the long robes that are the female equivalent of dishdashas, or overcoats. But the variety of Muslim dress doesn’t stop there. I was particularly surprised by the combination of hijab with knee-length skirts in Damascus, which is a popular style among fashionable young women. This is a style that one would almost never see sported by a Muslim woman in America. In fact, back home they would call this “hypocritical,” to cover your head but leave your legs or arms uncovered. Another variation that won’t be seen among many American Muslims is the mesh hijab, through which one can see a woman’s hair quite clearly. In Damascus, it seems that in many instances the hijab has merely turned into another garment, an accessory, that women adorn themselves with and use to express their style and personality. In fact, one associate opined that the muhajjibat (women wearing hijabs) here are more stylish than the non-muhajjibat. Although the hijab may still be a marker of Muslim identity, it is not always used to express any particular kind of religious values or a religious way of life.
Mesh hijab.
During one interview, a Muslim man said “I get so pissed off when people say that the Christians here are more open-minded than the Muslims. It’s not true. Just because you’re not wearing hijab doesn’t mean you’re open-minded.” Indeed, a fellow researcher has heard that many of the muhajjibat are more open-minded when it comes to relations with men than are the non-muhajjibat. According to him, many times the hijab is just a front, and that many of these women are more willing to maintain dating and physical relationships with men than are some of the Christian or uncovered women who hold more traditional expectations of themselves and the men in their lives. Indeed, last week I met a group of young Muslim women who couldn’t help but divulge to me that they could never live without male friends. “I love sex too much!” she laughed in my ear. I tried to explain that in the U.S. it is perfectly reasonable to have male friends without any associated physical relationship. “Oh, no, that is not possible here. We have male friends, but they are friends in bed!” I laughed in exasperation at the cultural barrier between us in understanding what friendships and relationships mean.

Although scholars have observed over the past 10 years the higher incidence of wearing hijab here in Syria, this is not necessarily an indication of any increasing Islamization of society. There are quite enough women here who don’t wear hijab to leave an outside observer confused about their identity. The clubs and streets are full of young Muslim men and women dressed in such a way that it is nearly impossible to tell a person’s religious identity without directly asking. Sometimes there are subtle ways to detect religious identity, such as whether one is fasting during Ramadan. But this, too, is not necessarily a sign of whether someone is Muslim or not. Many young Muslims here fasted for the first few days of Ramadan and then stopped. They needed a cigarette.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Che Guevara in the Middle East

The support for Hizballah here in Damascus is, not surprisingly, quite strong. Hizballah is seen as a group fighting for Arab rights against American and Israeli designs to control the region. Although there is not as much popular support for the Syrian government and the system it implements, the President himself also garners support for his foreign policy stance against what is seen as American bullying. So I wasn’t at all taken aback by the prevalence of Hizballah signs, flags, posters, and graffiti that I have seen around Damascus.

I was more amused by the popularity of older revolutionary symbols that are found side-by-side Hizballah paraphernalia. Che Guevara’s struggling face is seen juxtaposed with Nasrallah around the city, and his likeness can be found displayed on its own as well, hanging from a balcony, or on a young man’s t-shirt.

Old City souq.

I walked into a shop in the Old City that was selling Hizballah t-shirts to ask them about the phenomenon. The shop owner and his two friends sitting inside explained to me that “Every generation has a hero. Che was from the older generation, and now this generation has found theirs.” “Nasrallah?,” I asked. “Mmm, yes, but even more so this guy,” as he pulled out a keychain with President Chavez of Venezuela from his display case. I laughed. “Why Chavez?” He said “You know, there is a joke going around, we call him Abu Ali, because he is the most Arab of all the Arabs.” What he meant is that Chavez, like Bashar and Nasrallah and Guevara, defies American requests to shape his country’s policies to the benefit of the US.

A pastiche of keychains.

Another friend of mine in the Old City souq, a young shop owner of Palestinian descent, showed me the pictures in his cell phone one evening. They consisted of three types: personal photos of himself, friends, and girlfriends, Amr Diab (an Arabic pop singer from Egypt), and Che Guevara. I’d guess that out of 275 photos in his phone memory, at least 75 were of Che. I asked him why he admired the man so much. “He was a humanitarian. He was a doctor. He helped people. Not only did he fight for freedom in his own country, he helped fight for freedom from oppression, freedom from American political domination, in all the countries that surrounded him.” The relationship between the symbolism of Che and the struggle of the Palestinians, along with the rest of the Middle East, in fighting for freedom from US and Israeli political and economic domination was then obvious.

Hizballah motif cake in Bab Touma, a Christian area of the Old City.

I should also note that Hizballah’s popularity is certainly not limited to the Shi’i or even the Muslim areas of the city. One associate commented that Hizballah paraphernalia seems even more prevalent in Christian areas. Perhaps this is true, but the fact that Hizballah’s support is not limited by sectarian identity points even more strongly to the fact that the party is seen by Arabs belonging to different religious communities as representing their shared political interests against dominating forces. Arabs like strong defiant leaders, whether they are Shi’i from Lebanon or Venezuelan. Another possibility, though, is that Christians here feel the need to display their solidarity with the majority Muslim community. I don’t think, however, that this is a disingenuous display of support, even if other observers have noted that Christians in Syria are frightened by the prospect of being dominated by a Muslim government and are more happy to live under a minority regime that might protect them. Next time I pass by I’ll ask the Christian shop owner if he is at all frightened by the Islamic character of Hizballah.

Personal Note from the Author

My homestay mother and her daughter, dressed up for Ramadan.

In honor of my little sister’s request, I will try to add a personal note to my postings periodically. This week I’ve been searching for a place since I moved out of my homestay. That was a crazy evening. I told Arabesk (the office who brokered my homestay) that I needed to find a place on my own where I could have more freedom, but I could finish out the month, I wasn’t in a hurry. They told me “OK, just let us find another student to take your place.” As time passed, I called them and asked them if it looked like they were going to find someone. They apparently interpreted this call as my pushing them to find someone quickly, when really I just wanted to know if it was a sure thing that they were going to find a student and I would be able to move out with a full refund.

One morning last week, they brought a student from Korea over to view the house and my room. I was thinking I was about to start my apartment search because I had two weeks left to finish the month in my homestay. Instead, we received a call that night from Arabesk saying “Hi, the student liked the place and would like to take it.” “OK, when?” “Mmmm, tonight or tomorrow.” “Umm….., OK, Uhhh…., I guess I have to think about it, this is a surprise for me, I thought I had two more weeks to look for an apartment.” “Oh, but the other day you called us asking if we had found a student yet!” – there’s cross-cultural communication for you.

So I’ve been living with Lina, another Fulbright student, for a few days looking for an apartment. I found several possibilities, but my situation makes things a bit difficult. It’s easy to find a room in a large house in the Old City, but they would probably kick me out when David came, or make a big hoopla about having a man in the house. Even if I share an apartment with other students, there is the possibility that the landlord would get angry for a man to come and visit, even if he is my husband. Many landlords will only allow all girls or all boys to share an apartment together. So the only other option is to get an apartment of my own.

Sounds easy enough. But the architecture in Damascus is geared toward social needs. It is very rare to find a one bedroom apartment suitable for a single person. Most of the architecture here assumes that individuals always live in families, or, at worst, with a group of friends of the same sex. So available apartments are two bedrooms at a minimum, and of course come with a big salon to entertain guests and keep them out of your private space (which Americans don’t worry too much about).

It is considered depressing to live in an apartment by yourself. But this is nearly the only way possible to keep all the freedoms we expect as American adults, such as coming home late and having guests sleep over (yes, even friends of the opposite sex). In the end, I was lucky enough to find a small house in the Old City that I can afford individually. It’s a great location and a rare opportunity to live in the oldest part of the longest continually inhabited city in the world. I’ll send photos out as soon as it’s ready! (Archaeologists argue about whether the world’s longest continually inhabited city is Damascus or Aleppo. Either way, Syria can claim the honor, and my friends here in Damascus are quite convinced that it belongs to their beloved city.)

(Julio, I don’t know how personal this ended up being, but it is what I have been busy doing this week outside my research!)