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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Syrian Cultures: An American Student Perspective

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.