What Americans think when a fellow American tells them he studies in Damascus…

During a short trip to the United States this past week, I encountered a variety of different responses to my living in Syria. The purpose of my trip was to visit some of the universities to which I am applying for graduate programs this year.

My first stop was Washington D.C. where, due to a snow storm, I ended up having to stay in a hotel overnight before taking a train to New Jersey. The hotel clerk, who I apparently had woken up so that he could check me in around 2 a.m., asked me where I was coming from. “Syria,” I said. The clerk looked at me at smiled saying, “So, you work for the government, then?” This was one of the most common responses to me saying that I live in Syria – particularly in the political capital of the U.S

Even after I got to the first university in New Jersey the following day, I received some interesting responses to living in Syria. The students were all applicants for a Near Eastern Studies and many had spent time in Egypt and Turkey studying. They, too, however, were surprised to find that I live in Syria – albeit less surprised than my cab driver in Boston a few days later.

There is no doubt that there are more American students in Damascus than ever before and my feeling is that number will only increase in the coming years

Habib was an Algerian who moved to the U.S. three years ago, leaving his family at home in Algiers. As we loaded my bags into the trunk of the car at Logan International, I heard him say hello to a fellow cabby across the road and so I knew he was from North Africa. He was very chatty and told me all about his father who had fought in the Algerian Revolution against the French. I told him I would really love to go to Algeria some day but it is still somewhat difficult for Americans. He told me the Arab world is generally like that – to which I responded that I actually live in Syria now. He laughed for a few seconds and was very surprised, “You live in Syria? Well if you live there then why would you not go to Algeria?” He asked me a ton of questions about living there. He was pleased to hear that I had wonderful things to say about being an American in Damascus.

There was a general response of surprise from pretty much everyone I spoke with about living in Syria because most American students studying Arabic right now are still going to Cairo. Things are changing quickly, though. Cairo is fast becoming a less favored location for Arabic study and many study abroad programs and university departments are sending students to Damascus. There is no doubt that there are more American students in Damascus than ever before and my feeling is that number will only increase in the coming years.

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