A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘Damascus’ Category

Levantine literature: translated by the enemy.

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas Eve to those of you who are celebrating, and for those of you commemorating Ashoura, I hope that it is an opportunity for reflection for you. (And I hope that you are as pleased as I am that Muharram was included in my employer’s “Season’s Greetings” email.)

At the start of the month, I read a very interesting article in Ha’aretz, which I had intended to post immediately. “Immediately” turned into several weeks, but am pasting it in below. The article announces a planned law that would allow Arabic-language works – originals and translations – produced in the confrontation states to be sold in Israel.

Those of you who, like me, are obsessed with the Mandate era, will be fascinated (but probably not surprised) to learn that the current law is a gift of the British. And those of you who, also like me, enjoy following the twists and turns of the cozily hostile Israel-Syria relationship, will be delighted to learn that the Arabic-language translations of well-known Israeli writers like Amos Oz are produced in Syria.

Happy reading!

Books translated in “hostile countries” will soon be allowed to be sold in Israel, after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided yesterday to support a bill overturning a World War II-era law aimed at blocking information from enemy states.

This will allow the Arabic translations of best-selling children’s books like “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as Arabic versions of prominent Israeli authors, to be sold here.

Until now, Arabic translations of popular children’s books and works by authors like Amos Oz, Yoram Kaniuk and Eshkol Nevo were not available in Israel, because they were printed in hostile countries like Syria and Lebanon. This was because a 1939 British-Mandate era law prohibited literature from being imported from enemy states.

Given the relatively low readership of Arabic-language books in Israel, and the resulting low returns on translations, almost none have been produced in Israel.

The present bill, initiated by MKs Yuli Tamir, Yariv Levin and Zeev Bielski, aims to make literature in Arabic more readily available.

Tamir (Labor) said yesterday, “This would be an important law, one that ensures the freedom of literature and culture of all citizens. Every citizen is entitled to read literature in his mother tongue. This law would end the absence of children’s books and belles-lettres for Arabic readers.”

The bill calls for freedom to “import books from any country, and allow translations into any language, in order to ensure exposure to a wide array of literature and to expand citizens’ rights to rich cultural lives in their native tongues.”

The proposal allows security authorities to reject the importation of a certain book or journal for content that could be used for incitement, such as literature denying the Holocaust or encouraging terrorism.

In January, the human rights organization Adalah petitioned the High Court to allow Kol-Bo Sefarim – Israel’s largest supplier of Arabic-language textbooks – to import books from Egypt and Jordan that were published in Syria and Lebanon.

The book supplier has imported books from Egypt for three decades, and since 1993, it has imported books from Jordan as well. Most of the books were printed in Syria or Lebanon, but the company had received permission from the chief military censor to import them.

In August of last year, however, Kol-Bo received a letter from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry stating its permit to import books from enemy countries would not be renewed. The letter said such books could not even be imported through countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations, due to the World War II-era law.

Adalah’s petition noted that 80 percent of books intended for Israel’s Arab community, and most Arabic books destined for college and university libraries in Israel, are printed in Syria and Lebanon, where several large publishing houses hold exclusive rights to translate major Western literary works into Arabic.

Lebanese printing houses hold exclusive rights to translate “Harry Potter” and “Pinocchio,” as well as works released by Britain’s Ladybird Books, which publishes a variety of popular children’s books. The Lebanese printing houses also hold exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of classic works by William Shakespeare and Moliere, and modern works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho.

A handful of Syrian printing houses have exclusive rights to the Arabic translations of Hebrew works by Oz, Kaniuk and Nevo.


Posted in Arab world, Arabic, books, Damascus, Israel | 1 Comment »

minding the social gap in Damascus

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 21, 2009

Hello from not-very-good-at-keeping-up-with-blogging land. I interrupt this general blogging hiatus to share a very interesting article on Damascus’ high-end consumer culture. Those of you who have spent time in Damascus will be as amazed as I am (last trip there: summer 2006) at the long list of brand-name shops and cafes. I’m not a great fan of Lina’s, which I associate with the rather sad ending to a very sweet relationship; and nor am I a great fan of Aishti, which I associate with over-priced, under-curated designer glitz. But that these places are now part of the Chami landscape is nothing short of amazing.

Well, nothing short of amazing, but still less amazing than the idea that Chaalan could be described as an “exclusive” neighborhood. Still, that’s one flat note in an otherwise quite intriguing read. Enjoy!

Syria’s youth flaunt new wealth
By an IWPR-trained reporter

Under the arcade of the fancy Four Seasons hotel in Damascus, Anas Mashafej gazes at the windows of Aishti, an up-market clothing shop that sells designer brands such as Armani and Roberto Cavalli.

A bright – and expensive – shirt attracts the attention of the 22-year-old college student. After some hesitation, he decides to buy it and postpone buying other items he needs.

“The general atmosphere at college encourages wearing well-known brands,” he said. “Most students brag about their designer acquisitions.”

Close to Aishti, in the exclusive Damascus neighborhood of Chaalan, the streets throng with Western-style cafes and restaurants, like Segafredo and Costa, stylish shops and private banks.

The development of such areas, which are frequented by a small emerging class of well-off Syrians, epitomizes the economic transformation of Syria in recent years.

In 2005, Syrian officials proclaimed that the country was moving towards a more market-oriented economy by encouraging competition and that the Syrian market was opening to foreign goods and services.

This change gave rise to a class of Syrian youth, mainly the children of rich businessmen and officials, who increasingly adopt Western lifestyles.

Azzam Jamil, 26, helps his father at his printing company. He is part of the new wave of Syrian youth who drink filtered coffee at trendy cafes while checking their e-mail on laptops or making travel plans with their friends.

Jamil, who wears torn jeans and a T-shirt with an image of a skull on it and has dyed blond hair, said, “I don’t feel awkward dressing this way. All my friends dress the same … This is how I express myself.”

Kids like Jamil attend private universities and spend their free time in the new malls of Damascus, using restaurants like KFC and Hardee’s as well as an array of amusement centers, modern cinema theatres, and parking lots where they can show off their expensive cars.

Most of the posh spots are in Kafarsousa, where real estate agents say that homes can cost up to US$2 million. Other hot spots reflecting the craze for modern lifestyles include spas, tennis courts, gymnasiums and nightclubs.

Recently, a group of young rich Syrians started a club to play American football, considered an exclusive sport in Syria.

Damascus has also witnessed in the past few years the opening of large supermarkets that sell expensive foreign goods and exotic fruits.

Observers note that in parallel to the new islands of wealth, the liberalization of the economy has brought with it a starker contrast between the standards of living of the rich and the poor, in a country that once prided itself on having social equality and a solid welfare system.

In contrast to the new luxurious suburbs, there are more slums around the city, said Ahmad Nokrosh, a Damascus-based economic expert.

“Liberalization of the economy has impinged on the social reality in the country,” he said, adding that basic services provided by the state, such as education, transport and health, are getting worse at the expense of a flourishing private sector that caters to the moneyed classes.

He said that even hospitals now have advanced sections reserved for wealthier patients.

Zaher Mansour, a 24-year-old law student who makes his living working as a waiter in the trendy Lina’s cafe, said that the preoccupations of rich young Syrians were very different from those of the rest of Syrian youth.

“This place feels like Europe, as if you are somewhere in London or Rome,” said Mansour, who comes from a modest background, adding that the price of a cup of coffee is almost equivalent to what he earns in a day.

Wealthy youngsters speak about the latest fashion in clothes or new mobile-phone models while the likes of him worry about inflation, the increasing price of diesel, or building an additional room onto the house to accommodate a brother who is getting married, he says.

Posted in Damascus | Leave a Comment »

Banking on Syria

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 20, 2009

No love stories today, I’m afraid – but I do have a fairly interesting article on money to share (and we all know how closely connected love and money can be. Oxford Business Group’s latest report on Syria focuses on its banking sector, which has been slowly but steadily liberalizing, and which still has great potential for continued expansion.

I remember when the first banks began to appear in Damascus – the first banks other than the various branches of the Syrian commercial bank, I mean. And I remember when the first ATMs appeared – or at least, the first ATMs that would accept a foreign bank card. They reminded me of my attempts to use the local ATMs when living in Morocco in the late 1990s. I would stop by the ATM every day – not because I was so desperate for cash, but because the ATMs response to my US bank card varied so dramatically. One day I would be able to take out 400 dirhams; on another, I would be able to take out 10. And on a third, the ATM would reject foreign cards altogether.

The Syrian ATMs weren’t quite that erratic – with them it was all or nothing: either I could take out money, or I couldn’t. And when I couldn’t take out money, it was often because the ATM had run out of money. This was often heralded by a literal snowfall of white papers on the ground around the ATM: evidently, the restocking took place fairly infrequently, and would-be customers had no interest in taking the paper receipts that the cashless machine faithfully printed out. Lots of litter, not so much cash.

At any rate, I think that a liberalized banking sector is a benefit to Syria, although the tightened Syrianization law and the banks’ excess liquidity to me are signs of its fragility. It will be interesting to see how banks develop in the next few years.

Less than a decade into Syria’s financial liberalisation efforts, banking is proving to be one of Syria’s fastest-growing sectors and an increasingly important pillar in the overall transformation of the economy.

Since the government began issuing licences in 2001, 11 private conventional and three private Islamic banks have set up in the country, with another two planning their initial public offerings (IPOs) and expected to be operational by year-end. Current legislation limits foreign ownership to 49%, and all of the private banks established to date are subsidiaries of either Lebanese, Jordanian or Gulf-backed institutions. While private banks account for just under 20% of the market, they are experiencing impressive growth (86.2% in 2008), and most have been able to turn a profit within their first two years of operation.

While the sector has liberalised dramatically in a relatively short period of time, and boasts some of the most advanced legislative frameworks for Islamic banking, microfinance and anti-money laundering in the region, it remains tightly regulated in comparison to neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon. Although this strict oversight has been credited with helping to insulate the country from the volatility that has plagued other markets. Further reform is needed to strengthen the sector’s maturation and performance.

A decree issued by the Ministry of Labour in July, stating that financial service firms (including banks and insurance companies) must reduce their volume of expatriate staff from 10 to 3%, has also prompted some reflection by local institutions, given that foreigners often hold key management and technical positions.

Khalid Wazani, the chairman of Arab Bank – Syria, told OBG “Our bank, even prior to the announcement, has been working hard on training in order to lower our dependency on foreign staff. In every country we operate, we would like to employ as many nationals as possible. Even so, staffing decisions should not be based on meeting percentages, but about having the right mix of required experience and expertise. Even in Amman, where we have our head office and have operated for over 79 years, we have to hire expats to fulfil certain technical areas of expertise.”

The impressive growth of private banks has been generated largely by deposits, rather than lending, resulting in excess liquidity in the market. World Bank’s “Doing Business 2010” report ranks Syria as 181st of out 183 countries in terms of access to credit, and according to the IMF, credit to the private sector has stood at around 15% of GDP since 2005, versus figures of 75% for Lebanon and around 100% for Jordan.

This can partly be attributed to the fact that the more established state banks are better positioned to service government clients, forcing private banks’ to rely on smaller business borrowers for whom financial records are harder to come by. Strict regulations and a lack of financial infrastructure also inhibit the expansion of credit, as an absence of a treasury-bill market or certificate of deposit system means that money deposited at the Central Bank accrues no interest.

The government, on their part, is proactively working to accelerate financial reforms, with Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, telling OBG, “We realise that access to funding is a major issue and the central bank is undertaking a number of measures to ease banks’ willingness to lend.”

Adib Mayaleh, the governor of the Central Bank, echoed this sentiment in an interview with OBG, “We want private banks to start financing big projects, whether public or private, and will introduce a certificate of deposit guarantee that should encourage them to do so.”

The government is also working on introducing treasury bills by year-end, as well as a new mortgage and leasing law that is expected to make easier the foreclosure and recovery of assets for non-performing loans. “We are also setting up a mortgage finance corporation to supervise mortgage lending as this is an area that needs more support,” said Dardari.

A positive offshoot of the increased returns on deposits will be a greater willingness to spend internally, with the expansion of bank branch networks a major focus. As banks are already constrained by qualified staffing shortages and complicated zoning laws that make finding a suitable location difficult, investing in new branches is a challenge. Bassel Hamwi, the deputy chairman and general manager for Bank Audi, told OBG, “Without the issuing of treasury bills, we as banks cannot invest and make money on our deposits. And if a bank cannot make money on its deposits, why should they bother aggressively expanding their branch network?”

As of June 2009 there were 414 branches in the country, up from 374 at the end of 2008. While branch penetration is growing, at an estimated one branch per 47,700 people, Syria has far fewer branches per head than its regional neighbours; a figure that is compounded when considering that most branches are concentrated in the major urban centres.

The Central Bank is preparing a new requirement for private banks to increase their paid-up capital to $200m-$300m, up from a current minimum of $30m. While banks will have a three-year window of preparation, some have expressed concern that this measure would place even further pressures on shareholders. Governor Mayaleh, however, explained the move to OBG, stating that, “We are raising minimum capital requirements to encourage bigger banks to operate in the market. We want our banks to be of international size and standards. Bigger banks sustain the economy.”

Overall, while the past 10 years have seen major advances in banking services and infrastructure, the country is still considered under-banked, and there remains much to do before achieving full sector modernisation. Add to this some uncertainty from the banking community over the future direction of government reforms, and banking presents itself as one of the more challenging, if opportunistic, areas of the Syrian market.

Posted in Damascus, economics, Syria | Leave a Comment »

hair, water, and taxis: Syrian triggers in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 15, 2009

This morning, an article in The National by Rasha Elass caught my eye – and brought back memories. Rasha writes about her reception at a posh Beirut hair salon, when the stylist learns that she is Syrian.

Having lived in Damascus for some time before moving to Beirut, I too learned about the perils of my accent. Unlike Rasha, however, my learning was generally ex post facto. Hence in summer 2005 I was booted from a Beirut service for saying something too shami; and when I moved to Beirut, I avoided saying “water” for months after seeing the looks on waiters’ and shopkeepers’ faces when I asked for “moy” rather than “mai”. And I only learned to stop saying “lissa” one evening when the person to whom I had been speaking drew back from me as if I were diseased.

Ahh, memories.

In any case, my experiences were those of an outsider: someone who had committed the offense of learning Arabic like a Syrian, rather than a Lebanese – and not someone who had committed the evidently graver offense of being Syrian, like Rasha.

Here is her article – enjoy!

The Lebanese hairdresser had a sleight of hand typical to his profession, alternating quickly between his left and right hand as he cut, razored, pulled and tugged the strands of my hair. He came highly recommended by a friend, so I wasn’t worried about the way my hair was going to look when he was done.

But I was worried about him picking up on my Syrian accent, given that I was in an area of Beirut where many hold strong anti-Syrian sentiments.

And then came the inevitable.

“Are you Lebanese?” he asked.

Sometimes I purposely don’t speak Arabic when I venture into anti-Syrian areas in Lebanon. During a road trip to Batroun, a charming small town with a staunchly anti-Syrian community, my Lebanese friend made me promise not to say a single word in Arabic.

“They’ll pick up you’re Syrian from the minute you open your mouth,” she warned.

Though her concern was exaggerated – violence motivated by hatred is extremely rare since the end of the civil war in Lebanon – times were tense, and people might have been rude or snooty towards us if they had found out that I was Syrian.

Your accent in the Arab world is like an identity card. Even the unfamiliar ear can place you in a region, be it the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt or North Africa. The familiar ear can even figure out if you’re an urban or rural Syrian, a Damascene or from Aleppo, a Kurd from northern Iraq or a Shiite from the south, an Algerian or a Moroccan, and whether you grew up locally or abroad.

Accents also often are the butt of political jokes, like the popular favourite for Lebanese and Syrians taking political jabs at each other.

It pokes fun of the words moo and ma, Syrian and Lebanese slang for “right”, as in: “You’re coming to dinner, moo?”

“‘Moo’? What are we? Cows?” goes the joke.

“Better than ‘ma’,” it continues. “‘Ma’ is for sheep.”

Given my propensity to say moo, I couldn’t lie to the hairdresser, so I confessed that I was Syrian.

“Emm,” he muttered, his face visibly annoyed. I briefly worried he might purposely ruin my hair, which would be a disaster given I was to attend a posh Syrio-Lebanese wedding later and needed it to be flawless.

“You’re Syrian from both parents?” he asked.

Here, I thought, could be my way out. I could lie and end the conversation amicably, guaranteeing a good haircut. Or I could keep playing cat and mouse and see where the game took us.

“Umm, no. My mother is American,” I lied.

“Aaah, OK,” he said, looking relieved, as if everything about me finally made sense to him.

The most striking thing when travelling from Syria to Lebanon is how politicised everything is in Lebanon. While Syrians are bashful about discussing domestic politics, the Lebanese think nothing of asking you where you stand on their domestic political spectrum the minute they meet you.

“Are you with or against?” is probably the most common question in Lebanon after “what’s your name?”

I was still at the hairdresser’s watching my transformation in the mirror when I was asked this question.

“Are you with or against the Americans?” the hairdresser said.

Before I could answer, a customer in her mid fifties walked in frazzled, her short blonde-dyed hair brittle and uncombed. According to my friend, this hairdresser is known to the stars and the wives of politicians.

“Je suis en retard,” she announced to the hairdresser, her head appearing in my mirror. She spoke the French typical of Sodeco, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood.

How their conversation moved from “I’m running late” to comparing political affiliation is beyond me. But after exchanging the usual “ça va” and “walaw”, the latter being colloquial for no worries, they vented politics at each other.

“I know you’re a supporter of Aoun,” she told the hairdresser. “But I’m not,” she announced, her head’s reflection still floating in my mirror.

“And that’s why you were late,” he said in French, laughing.

The conversation ended as quickly as it started, and the woman sat herself down in a chair for a shampoo.

Turning his attention back to me, he made a reference to one pro and one anti-Syrian Lebanese politician and asked:

“Are you with or against Aoun? Or do you prefer Geagea?”

I mumbled something about not caring a whole lot for internal politics in Lebanon.

“Ah, mais vous êtes Syrienne. Vous aimez Hariri,” he concluded, half testing if I understood French, another telltale political sign for some Lebanese.

Fortunately, he got distracted and forgot to wait for an answer. When he finished my hair, I paid in US dollars, then thanked him in French. I walked out into the street, and my hair looked fabulous.

Posted in Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, Damascus, Lebanon, neighbors, Syria, vanity, women, words | 6 Comments »

Damascus in Beirut

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 13, 2009

One more reason to wish I were in Beirut: the play Damascus is being performed at Masra7 al Madina next week:


Darn. I would love to see this play – not because I think it is perfect, but because I think it would be interesting. And I would love to see it in Beirut.

Damascus is a Scottish play about a British man who comes to Damascus to sell English-language textbooks and interacts with various people at the hotel in which he is staying. Parts of it aren’t very realistic: apparently his stay in Damascus is extended because a bomb scare shuts the Beirut airport. (Two separate countries, one wants to remind the playwright; two separate airports. Not to mention that in a pinch he could always use the dumpy-but-getting-better Queen Alia in Amman.) Parts of it are probably a bit pedantic. But really: how often does one run across a play about Damascus ?

Here is the British Council’s take on Damascus‘ regional tour:

The British Council is organizing a regional tour of the British play (Damascus), written by David Greig, during March and April of this year in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Palestinian territories. The tour is also produced by the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and Michael Edwards and Carole Winter.

This theatrical tour is organized within the framework of a broader British Council project that aims to explore the growing interest of UK theatre in the Arab culture, while providing an opportunity for the Arab audience to view plays that address their image in the UK and to create platforms for commenting on and debating about these plays directly with the UK theatre makers, critics and journalists who have and interest in the region, and their Arab counterpart.

(You can read the rest here.)

Here is the Times of London‘s take on things:

So, Damascus goes to Damascus. Damascus the play, currently running at the Tricycle theatre, in northwest London, is off next month to the Syrian capital, then to Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank. Superficially, it is about a writer of English-language books flogging his wares, but it’s more about the tricky issues of censorship and politics.

Herein lies a problem. The Tricycle’s production uses a huge picture of the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, as a backdrop. But it’s a somewhat mischievous image of only half his face and must be removed for the Damascene version. Also cut will be a crucial line in which the writer, Paul, tells Muna, who represents a language school: “Your government is a dictatorship.” With this taken out, the subsequent conversation between them about their respective countries’ political setups will be invalidated.

The play’s tour is funded entirely by the British Council, which these days targets favoured areas of the Muslim world and China. The Brits, of course, are now trying to be especially nice to Assad, who took over from his not-so-nice father in 2000. In addition, Mrs Assad was born in Britain.

I’m all in favour of as much artistic exchange between countries as possible, but cultural diplomacy can be a double-edged sword. Damascus happens to be a very interesting play, and its writer, David Greig, has done his research, after working in Syria with budding local playwrights. It is, nonetheless, a British take on events in the Middle East. Clearly, when in Damascus, local sensitivities cannot be ignored.

I like reading these two pieces in tandem. The British Council’s piece points out the great and grave need for self-reflexivity in the region, while the Times points out that “local sensitivities” may blunt the full impact of – as Burns would say – the chance to see themselves as others see them.

On an unrelated note, this morning I stumbled across a fascinating account of a visiting tourist’s illicit excursion through Takieddin Solh’s former home, complete with gorgeous photos. Trust me: you want to read this story, and you want to see these photos!

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Beirut, Damascus, words | Leave a Comment »

What’s a nice Jewish girl doing in Syria? new thoughts on my favorite city

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 5, 2009

This morning I found myself utterly engrossed by an interview in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, which appeared on my Google news alert. If you read it carefully, you will see a number of interesting tensions between the stereotypes that the interviewer has – about the appropriateness of a young Jewish academic studying Arabic literature rather than Jewish, about Jewish life in Syria, and about Islamic influences on synagogue architecture – and the much more grounded perspective that Rachel Levine, the interviewee, has. (And a few things that are not addressed, such as the fact that many Syrians would have no idea that Rachel Levine is a “stridently Jewish” name.)

As for me, I found parts of it an absolute hoot, like the idea that a rabbi would calmly ask a young woman how she and her boyfriend enjoyed traveling together. I may be wrong, but in my experience, the sexual habits of unmarried Americans and their comfort level in discussing these with religious leaders are quite different.

I also found parts of it extremely comforting, like Levine’s comment that there are “over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors” in Damascus – men who apparently want a wife who will commit to staying in Syria. This is heartening to me, because it suggests that Syria’s small Jewish community is not yet (and, I hope, ever) in danger of dying out completely.

As I noted above, the interview is quite long, but worth skimming if you don’t have the patience (or the time) for a full read.

Why’s a Nice Jewish Girl Spending a Year in Syria?

— Rabbi Dr. Goldie Milgram

This fall Rachel Levine begins doctoral studies at the University of Pennsylvania, having completed a BA in Near Eastern Languages including Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi (Persian). Right now she’s studying Arabic in Syria.

PJV: Sounds like a potentially dangerous location for a beautiful young American woman with such a stridently Jewish name. Why did you want to spend a year in Syria?

Coming from a part of the academic world where study in the Arabic-speaking world is not only expected, but imperative, it was the next natural step. Syrians guard and cultivate their linguistic heritage and they are very proud about this. It’s simply the best place to learn Arabic well as any person on the street can speak to you in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA).

PJV: What drew you to Arab literature over say, Jewish studies or Torah?

I’ve always seen it as intimately related to my being engaged in the Jewish world. If we’re talking about comparative advantage, I went to public school and don’t have a background in Talmud or Jewish studies, but I do have a background in multiculturalism and being open to the other. I think there need to be people in the Jewish world who study Arab societies from a cultural, rather than political perspective. And my work isn’t so far removed from Jewish studies because my doctoral program will also involve Hebrew across the full spectrum from classical texts to modern literature.

I’m particularly interested in the questions that are found where modern Arabic and Modern Hebrew discourses interact. What’s written about Arabic literature in Hebrew and Modern Hebrew literature in Arabic, or when you have Israeli Jews writing in Arabic and Israeli Palestinians writing in Hebrew, these are fascinating areas of overlap. And if we’re talking more historically, Jewish studies in America are very much Ashkenaz-centered. I think the story of Jews in Muslim lands, which would include Arabic and Persian-speaking Jews, is a story that is waiting to be told in the West, and a very important story given the current political climate.

Furthermore, anyone who is committed to Judaism and the Jewish past, present and future needs to realize that in the 21st century it’s incumbent upon us to learn Arabic and learn to appreciate the interwoven and adjacent Arab cultures. We don’t have to all become world-class scholars in Arabic, but we all do need to become familiar with their customs, their magnificent history, and their incredibly expressive language, because if we think that Israel is going to stay and “survive,” we need to recognize that we have neighbors and we must build relationships with them. That we must do. In speaking with American Jews, I see it just hasn’t sunk in how close together the two peoples live. Day schools would do well to offer Arabic and Arab cultural studies.

A Palestinian girl from the Old City of Jerusalem explained it to me this way when I was living in Amman. She’d given me an Elite candy bar she’d brought with her, and stated that “We’d better learn to get along because we’ll be living side by side,” and then she paused…”Forever.” In the ideal world knowledge of the Arab world and language would be just as valued as Hebrew, Talmud and Torah given the emergence of the State of Israel in what happens to be the geographic center of the Arab world and the bridge between Mashriq and Maghreb [Eastern and Western Arabic-speaking countries].

Right now there is a curiosity in Jewish communities about the Arabic speaking world but often it’s interwoven with schadenfreude: Why can’t they have democracy? Why do they blow up one another’s mosques? Why are people kept so poor in such an oil-rich region? Can women drive cars in Damascus? What are you going to Damascus for, to learn how to make bombs? I want to help change that curiosity in which the subtext is, why are Israelis so superior? There needs to be a more neutral and respectful curiosity about Arab culture and the Arabic language.

PJV: Did you get to travel widely? What surprised you most about Syrian culture? You are half-way through your year there, how has your perspective changed over time?

There are certain things I think we can learn from more traditional cultures of the Arabic-speaking people of greater Syria, if I’m not romanticizing. There’s a huge emphasis on spending time with family and friends. Syrians will often tell foreign students like me, when we say we don’t have time to socialize due to our studies, that we don’t know the real meaning of friendship; they sometimes get angry. Also, all their produce is locally grown. They often mention that Syria is self-sufficient in this way, which of course is easy to do in the Mediterranean. Public transportation is very efficient and inexpensive, you rarely have to wait more than two minutes for a microbus. People are very very friendly and hospitable, they’re world-famous for it.

PJV: Can you get by as a tourist without Arabic?

Sure. I was really overwhelmed by the great wealth of archaeological sites and stunning Islamic architecture. I was able to dress like I dress in America, which one can’t do in Egypt or the West Bank.

PJV: What are the religious services of Syrian Jews like? This was the first time I was in a Yom Kippur service where there were more Torah scrolls than people. I think I counted twenty-five kept in this one synagogue. All in beautifully ornate cases, they’re the scrolls brought from other Damascus synagogues which have since been boarded up. The service was 100% in Hebrew; I’d never heard this particular kind of semi-melodic chanting before.

PJV: Was there separate seating? Did the temple look like a mosque?

There was a place for women upstairs but since there were so few of us, we all sat downstairs. Ostensibly there could have been separate seating if there had been more people. We women were sitting off to the side in the back, but at one point they invited us to sit closer to the men, near the ark. They seemed impressed that we as women knew how to davven (pray) and read Hebrew. They probably didn’t think very much about this, but for us it felt like a rather profound gesture. Here we are, still fasting and praying in Damascus in 2008, so indeed, why make praying, atoning Jews sit so far away?

Many elements of the synagogue showed Islamic influence, for example the name of G*d in Hebrew illuminated on the gold wall plaques, stylized exactly like in the mosques. There’s a lot of word art with religious themes; it’s done in Hebrew calligraphy just like its Islamic, Arabic counterpart.

PJV: Did you feel isolated as a Jew in Syria?

Well, for those who are looking, I met /heard about over ten very eligible Jewish bachelors who would each love a Jewish woman to contact them with an eye toward marriage and a life in Syria. They all make an excellent living there, and as rumor has it, are quite eligible. But, what’s left of Jewish life in Damascus gives a sense of what it was like to be Jewish before vast swaths of Jews immigrated to America.

Being a minority anywhere, religious or otherwise, can be a position of disempowerment and the position of Jews in Syria must have been similar in some ways to that of other religious minorities. How similar, well, that’s a question for graduate school. But in this regard, Syrian Jews were integrated into a religiously-diverse Syrian society. The Jews were a sect among sects in Syria; they were sectarian in the true sense of the word.

PJV: One hears that people watch what they say over there. How safe and observed do you feel?

I know that part of what makes Syria so safe is that there’s a lot of “observing.” I feel very safe and know I can walk around at any time of day or night. I run alone at night and feel 100% safe and often feel people there are so involved in the lives of others and it’s like the entire society watches one another. It’s a nosey culture but people also care about one another immensely and watch out for the well-being of women especially. There’s a certain sense of chivalry that’s present in the society.

PJV: Are you “out” as a Jew there?

No. But maybe I’m just afraid and not giving the Syrians a chance. It’s been fascinating discovering a whole world where Judaism doesn’t exist. Here some people live very pious lives but they’ve never met a Jew, it doesn’t show up on their religious radar. It’s been a wake-up call to realize this is a norm in much of the world, that Judaism just isn’t present. Maybe it’s present in its absence; Jews are depicted as such an ominous force in world politics though no one has met one of us. Part of it is that I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

Some Syrians do reminisce about when they had a Jewish neighbor or Jewish classmates in high school and their nostalgia for them. This is a testament to their society’s religious diversity. In some ways the loss of the Jewish population, regardless of the historical circumstances, was seen as a blow to Syrian pluralism. But at the same time, what they understand as Judaism and Jews is so removed from Judaism and from what Jews are and what I really am. Syrian religious minorities themselves don’t always make known their religion, and so Jewish foreign students would be extremely well-served to adopt this local custom. I don’t think anything bad would necessarily happen to me, but it would change the relationships with people as I came to learn about them.

PJV: What do they say about Jews?

There are two strands of discourse – one is there are no gripes with the Jewish people; Judaism is a monotheistic Abrahamic religion, the problem’s with Zionism. Jews can come to Syria and anyone is welcome to pray in any holy place in Syria – a member of the Syrian parliament actually said this to us in a lecture. He was particularly proud of the fact that there is still a functioning synagogue in Syria even though the country is at war with the “Hebrew State.” So there’s this discourse of tolerance that’s interwoven with the enmity toward Zionism and Israel.

The other discourse is a very deeply rooted suspicion of Judaism; you see a lot of sensationalist books in bookstore like “The Sexual Secrets of the Talmud,” and books with skulls and blood and Jewish stars – the typical anti-Semitic fare. There’s a sensationalist book on the history of the Jews in Damascus published last year with a specific chapter dealing with the ritual uses of blood throughout history and with the phenomenon of “Jewish prostitution.” You don’t see such things about Christianity or other traditions. Every day one hears anti-Zionist sentiments such as “God isn’t a real estate agent, he doesn’t promise people land.” There are copies of Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kamf all over the place. There was a book at the book fair, Leaders of the Zionist Movement. I didn’t read it. There is an interest in the figures of Zionism, but as criminals. This type of stuff tends to be rather sensational in nature. They assume you’re a Christian if you’re an American tourist, but some people think most of America is Jewish. It’s very strange.

PJV: Is there a free press?

No, but newspapers from Lebanon are available for sale and one can always read widely on the Internet or watch any number of foreign satellite channels, everything from Al-Manar [Hizballah TV] to Al-Jazeera to the BBC and CNN. Syria has a secular government that is providing security for its citizens in one of the most violent, sectarian regions of the world.

Also, it’s important to remember how people’s degrees of relation to the terrorized-starving-dying people on TV affects their emotional response. When Syrians read take in news about Israelis and Palestinians the top story before Operation Cast Lead in Gaza had been the humanitarian suffering and the boycott there. Perhaps people hear from American satellite or from the last line in an Al-Jazeera article about rockets falling on Sderot, but obviously the sufferings of the residents of Gaza struck and do strike their hearts much more intensely and immediately. They look at the rockets falling on Israel with a degree of dismissiveness, if not a little bit of cheering.

With the air and now ground campaign in Gaza, the Arabic press sees as the main story what the Israeli and Western presses see as the collateral damage.

PJV: Your boyfriend came out to visit you for a month, how did your experience change?

They aren’t used to seeing unmarried people staying or traveling together. They would assume we are engaged or married, and bless us to have a large family, inshallah (G*d-willing). There was a family that was so hospitable they wouldn’t let us leave – for days. We went one night and the next day we stayed two more nights for a total four days with them. We lost track of how many cups of tea and teaspoons of sugar we drank.

Syrians have a saying – “his blood is light,” which means someone has a good sense of humor, and they do laugh a lot. My experience is that they value their relationships and joke about one another all the time. There has to be something to talk about in lieu of the sensitive topics of politics and religion.

PJV: Will you go back?

Well, that’s a much more daunting prospect than it was a week and a half ago given just how angry people are in the Arab world right now. But there are five months left of my program and I’m very much looking forward to continuing to deepen the relationships with the very kind people who I’ve had the immense pleasure of meeting in Syria. There must be a better way, and the more violent the region becomes, the clearer it gets that even though educating and being educated is a slow, gradual process, there really isn’t a moment to lose.

Posted in Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Damascus, Islam, Israel, travel, women, words | 2 Comments »

scrub-a-dub Saturday and Sunday

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 12, 2009

Sniff, sniff, my nose went this weekend as I toweled off after my shower. I’ve changed soaps, and now I smell like a hammam – in a good way.

When I was home in Iowa over Christmas, I found a few blocks of soap that I had purchased in Damascus a few years ago. “Aged” soap might not sound as appealing as “aged” wine or cheese, but I don’t think it goes stale. (Any soap experts out there?)


As you can see, the soap was made in Aleppo, and while it has no laurel, it does leave a lovely scent of olive oil on my skin. I’ve been missing the Levant recently, and my new-old soap has made me feel both closer to and further from the region.

Posted in Americans, Arabic, Brooklyn, Damascus, home, laundry, vanity, women | 4 Comments »

Seek, and ye shall find

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 9, 2009

Its a cold winter Friday in Manhattan. I’m sad about the ongoing attacks on Gazans, as well as the fact that it took two weeks for the UN Security Council to call for an “immediate ceasefire” – a call which BBC earlier this morning described Israel as “snub”-ing.(Not that Hamas seems to have been jumping up and down to endorse it, either.)

And I’m peeved that my new thermometer tells me that the temperature in my office is 64 degrees F (that’s 18 C for you metric fans). Brrr.

So to warm myself up, and to take my mind off more substantive issues, I have taken a look at the search terms that have brought new readers to my blog this week.

I always get a number of searches for Beirut, Lebanon, Lebanese culture, hijab, Islam, etc.

And I always get a few stumpers, like mayonnaise. I think my blog must appear on this search because I have written about toum – but who knows.

My blog brings in people looking for particular Arabic words – this week, “arnabeet” and “tatari” were popular (go figure).

And sometimes I think I can see the same searcher refining his/her search, as with “ghida fakhri”, which was followed by “is ghida fakhri Christian”. Cue eye roll, please.

Some searches make me laugh out loud, like “escort service in amman jordan”. Boy, is this a perennial search term favorite – and I am sure that most searchers are terribly disappointed to learn that my post on “The Dangers of Women” does not provide contact information.

And some just make me wonder about the searcher’s education, like “beaches in damascus”. May I suggest trying another search first: “Syria map”.

Enjoy your Fridays – and let’s hope for better news soon.

Posted in Amman, blogging, Damascus, humor, research | Leave a Comment »

Syrian delight: discount shopping in the boroughs

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 16, 2008

This morning at the gym I decided to recover from the latest Business Week (basic message: yes, the economy is bad; and yes, it will get worse :S) by ending my workout with something lighter: a fashion magazine.

Appropriately enough, the magazine had a small feature on bargain/resale shops in Brooklyn, including one in Gravesend. I’ve never been to Gravesend – actually, I’m not sure I could find it on a map –  but apparently it is a “wealthy Syrian-expat enclave”. And that means bargains that are both high-end and well-tended:


“What you won’t find at this high-end consignment store is a single frayed hem, stained sleeve, or scuffed heel” – I’m not surprised. Even if this were a middle-end store, or even a low-end, I doubt you’d see frays, stains, or scuffs – not to mention scratches, fades, or even wrinkles. Lebanese may have the region’s reputation for stylishness, but Syrians, rich or poor, are the most impeccably groomed people I have ever encountered.

Bring on the January sales – I’m looking forward to my first trip to Gravesend 🙂 .

Posted in Brooklyn, clothing, Damascus, fashion, Syria, vanity, women | 3 Comments »

liquor licenses at home and abroad

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 7, 2008

Years ago, during my first summer in Damascus, I was fascinated to learn that Syria’s laws prohibit serving alcohol within so many meters of a mosque – or at least, this is how the law was explained to me. It made sense – after all, most believers agree that Islam does not welcome alcohol – although a Christian friend later mentioned that similar rules apply to churches. And really, what worshiper would like to come out of a service to find disco music and drunken revelry just next door?

I assumed that these laws reflected the religious sensitivities of people in the Levant, and filed away the information in the “interesting facts” folder of my brain. But yesterday I was reminded that I live in a country that is also filled with religious sensitivities. After reading a letter to the editor questioning how a midtown church could receive a liquor license for its new restaurant, I did a bit of research and learned that most US state and city laws restrict liquor licenses – and especially bars – to a set distance from houses of worship and schools.

Here is the relevant section of New York State law:

    7. No retail license for on-premises consumption shall be granted  for
  any premises which shall be

    (a)  on  the  same  street  or avenue and within two hundred feet of a
  building occupied exclusively as a school, church,  synagogue  or  other
  place of worship or

    (b)  in a city, town or village having a population of twenty thousand
  or more within five hundred feet of  three  or  more  existing  premises
  licensed and operating pursuant to the provisions of this section;

    (c) the measurements in paragraphs (a) and (b) of this subdivision are
  to be taken in straight lines from the center of the nearest entrance of
  the premises sought to be licensed to the center of the nearest entrance
  of  such  school,  church, synagogue or other place of worship or to the
  center of the nearest  entrance  of  each  such  premises  licensed  and
  operating  pursuant  to the provisions of this section; except, however,
  that no renewal license shall be denied because of such  restriction  to
  any  premises  so  located  which  were maintained as a bona fide hotel,
  restaurant, catering establishment or  club  on  or  prior  to  December
  fifth,  nineteen hundred thirty-three; and, except that no license shall
  be denied to any premises at which a license under this chapter has been
  in existence continuously from a date prior to the date when a  building
  on  the  same  street  or  avenue  and  within  two hundred feet of said
  premises has been occupied exclusively as a school, church, synagogue or
  other place of worship; and except that no license shall  be  denied  to
  any  premises,  which  is  within  five  hundred  feet  of three or more
  existing premises licensed and operating pursuant to the  provisions  of
  this  section,  at  which  a  license  under  this  chapter  has been in
  existence continuously on or prior to November first,  nineteen  hundred
  ninety-three;  and  except  that this subdivision shall not be deemed to
  restrict the issuance of a hotel liquor license to a building used as  a
  hotel  and  in  which  a  restaurant liquor license currently exists for
  premises which serve as a dining room for guests  of  the  hotel  and  a
  caterer's license to a person using the permanent catering facilities of
  a  church,  synagogue  or  other  place of worship pursuant to a written
  agreement between such person and the  authorities  in  charge  of  such
  facilities.  The  liquor authority, in its discretion, may authorize the
  removal of any such licensed premises to a  different  location  on  the
  same  street  or avenue, within two hundred feet of said school, church,
  synagogue or other place of worship, provided that such new location  is
  not  within a closer distance to such school, church, synagogue or other
  place of worship.

    (d) Within the context of this subdivision, the word "entrance"  shall
  mean a door of a school, of a house of worship, or premises licensed and
  operating  pursuant to the provisions of this section or of the premises
  sought to be licensed, regularly used to give ingress to students of the
  school,  to  the  general  public attending the place of worship, and to
  patrons or guests of the premises licensed and operating pursuant to the
  provisions of this section or of the premises  sought  to  be  licensed,
  except  that where a school or house of worship or premises licensed and
  operating pursuant to the provisions of this section is set back from  a
  public  thoroughfare,  the  walkway  or  stairs leading to any such door
  shall be deemed an entrance; and the measurement shall be taken  to  the
  center of the walkway or stairs at the point where it meets the building
  line  or  public thoroughfare. A door which has no exterior hardware, or
  which is used solely as an emergency or fire exit,  or  for  maintenance
  purposes,  or which leads directly to a part of a building not regularly
  used by the general public or patrons, is not deemed an "entrance".

Very interesting. Establishments that serve alcohol are thus restricted not only in terms of their distance from schools and houses of worship, but also in terms of how many there can be in a particular area relative to the size of the overall population. I am not sure whether New York’s population is simply so large that the population requirement is satisfied, or whether it has been granted a general exemption, but there definitely are a lot of bars and restaurants clustered together here, in both the city and the boroughs.

In any case, I am glad to have had the chance to think again about the many ways in which we on both sides of the world are alike – and for the reminder of how far I sometimes travel in order to learn more about my home country 🙂 .

Posted in Americans, Arab world, beer, Damascus, New York, nightlife, religion, research | 6 Comments »