When I touched down at the Damascus airport in June of last year, it was my first time in Syria. Although it was not going to be my first time living in an Arabic-speaking country, I had been told by my friends that this time would be different -and they were right.
After graduating from college a few years ago, I spent time in Yemen, Egypt and Oman studying Arabic and conducting research. My goal in Syria has been to continue to develop my Arabic skills and to learn something about Syrian culture. My coursework at the University of Damascus has been with the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) which operates under the auspices of the University of Texas-Austin in the United States. Courses are aimed not only at teaching students Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Colloquial Damascene Arabic but also at helping students understand more about Syrian society and culture. After having lived in Damascus for eight months, however, I have become more aware of Syrian cultures than anything else. Our coursework has required us to be in constant interaction with the Syrian population through conducting interviews, attending lectures, cultural events, watching Syrian television series and interning at a local Syrian company (in my own case, working with the Forward Magazine crew). As a result of this regular interaction with Damascenes and other Syrians that live in the Sham, I have been struck by the way people talk about Syrian ‘culture.’ Damascenes are more than happy to help a foreign student like me learn more about Syria and, thanks to them, I have been presented with a massive range of perspectives and opinions as to what defines Syria and its people.
Obviously, I have no intention of listing those various definitions. Instead, I would like to point out an interesting underlying theme present in virtually all of the answers I received to my questions. People almost always divided their answers into sections, explaining that the answer to any given question depends on a variety of different factors, including but not limited to: hometown, religion, socio-economic level, age and gender. In my opinion, this points to a keen awareness among Damascenes of the various levels of their identity. While most Damascenes I talked to envisioned something called “Syrian culture,” they were quick to point out the pluralist elements of Syrian society. Indeed, they seemed proud of how diverse the Syrian population is and saw the cultures of Syria as part of what defines it as a society.