Why so Syria = So why Syria? A number of people have been asking me about Syria, the whys whats whens and hows. So here it is: Syria based on my experience.
Over the span of 30 months and counting I have managed, if only through sheer length of exposure, to amass ‘facts’ about Syria, living in Syria as a foreigner, living in Syria in general, comparisons, and a long list of “if I only I’d bought *insert item* with me!” from both my experiences and the experiences of other Syrian-somethings or non-Syrians who have taken the plunge and decided to relocate to Syria.
I’ll try, to the best of limited ability, to address as many of the issues I honestly wish someone had talked to me about. I, on the one hand, had to find out the hard way: trial and error, regrets, and mistakes. You, on the other hand, have me. Hopefully! =P
This depends on your personal choice and situation. Many people stay with family, and they’re generally more than happy to have you. Contacting someone here, ahead of time, is usually a good idea.
English teacher: Like Anne and the King!!
I’m going to assume you speak a foreign language. English, perhaps? Then you’re all set. Syria is thriving. More so before the current state of the global economy but nevertheless it’s still going strong. Everyone and their mother want to learn English. And they’re willing to pay good money for it. You have a few options: there are language institutes on practically every other street corner, you can tutor individuals privately, you can tutor groups privately, or you become a full/part time teacher at a school. The first three pay very well, if you know where to go, who to tutor, and what to charge. I worked at one institute for 500 Syrian pounds an hour (from here on in, SYP), which is 10 USD. Then again I also worked as a full time seventh grade teacher for 9600 SYP which is 200 USD. Big difference, eh?
If you don’t like teaching there are number of other things you can do. *silence* Well, actually not really. There are things, but not as well paying or as easily found. The wanted ads/bargain finder papers (or whatever they are) here are always filled with job ads in English, so you can call them up. Most of the time I say name your price. Your accent, your experience, and your nationality are highly valued.
are everywhere. And unlike NYC (or so I’ve heard) it isn’t impossible to grab one. And unlike Canada they won’t leave your wallet considerably lighter. Rides within the city seldom exceed 100 SYP (2USD). One thing to make absolutely certain of is that the meter is working. Before you get in ask: Is your meter working? If he says no DO NOT GET IN. I was charged 500 SYP (10USD) for what I later learnt was a 50 SYP ride. No one likes being ripped off! Even if he says it’s working make sure it’s ticking and keep your eye on it! Sometimes they’ll pull an “Oh, it’s working! But I haven’t had it changed to the new pricing yet!” and then expectantly wait for you to pay more. Don’t. And if he says it’s working and five minuets in it isn’t ask him what he’s going to charge. If it doesn’t sound right get off and get another taxi.
are good, if you know where you’re going. The Damascus Public Transportation System has recently invested in some nice, new buses. They’re green and yellow! They’re also comfortable. And bus rides are (maximum) 20 SYP (less than a USD). If you don’t know where you’re going, do not get on. Many buses are intercity and the worst that could happen is you’ll get lost in Damascus, which I’d enjoy. Others are outer city. Not fun. I once ended up in a village outside Damascus because every little while I’m like “He’ll make that turn. No? Okaaay. The next turn? No?!” And eventually ended up at The End Of The Earth – or close. I made it back in one piece, but have since learnt to tell random people at bus stops where I’m going and heed their guidance.
are highly impractical, especially in the city center. No parking. And you don’t really want to buy a car for a while. Cars are still very, very expensive in Syria. New cars are expensive and old cars are even more so =( Prices have declined from a few years ago when a used car was the same price as a new car, but have yet to reach Canadian levels.
No matter your situation, you’ll barely have to cook. If you have family here, then you’ll have an excess of food. Syrians are amazing hosts. They can lay a spread like I’ve never seen. And, thankfully for you and I, they still believe in ikram al dayf – the code of conduct when dealing with guests. Good stuff, trust me. If you don’t have family then the people you’ll meet will invite you over to eat. If you rent a room at someone’s house, it’ll generally come with meals. If none of the above apply then restaurants here are cheap, cheap, cheap! Other than the high-end restaurants – where I warn you, you may have to shell out big time – the majority of full meals’ll cost from 200 to 500 SYP (4 – 10 USD). And they are GOOD. My favorite restaurants are the Arabic houses turned restaurants/sheesha bars in Old Damascus. The setting is great, the food is even better.
Ice cream – How could I possibly forget??? Syrian ice cream is stellar. Different than regular ice cream, but when it’s good it’s goooood. Fun fact: Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian immigrant, invented the ice cream cone. That’s right. Our ice cream is that good!!
Have you heard of Bakdash? No? Well I don’t blame you. But I will say that no trip to the Old City is complete without a stop at Bakdash. It has been around since the beginning of time – or earlier! – and is famous for its ice cream. It’s been literally integrated into Syrian culture, although some claim that quality has decreased significantly in the last decade. I really haven’t been around to notice, but I think it’s great.
I’m going to address what’s available. You conclude what to buy and in what quantities.
This is a toughie. I personally avoid Syrian-made (unless it’s lingerie! LOOL). Quality is only just starting to improve, so more often than not you’ll end up with something you’re going to regret buying. Footwear is a never. Not unless you’re out and you totally bust the shoes you’re walking in and it’s either buy or bare. Otherwise avoid like the plague. Clothes are not good. Not good at all. They shrink, change shape/color, and fit wrong. Syrians are also found of…. decorations, as evidenced by the lingerie deal. Often, a really nice shirt will have bows and buttons and lace and clasps and end up looking like a contestant in the Who’s Tackiest Today Awards.
Syrian made Syrian stuff, on the other hand, is stellar. I mean cultural stuff. Syrian stuff, you know? And OMG the paintings!! *drools* They are WOW and so cheap! At least compared to Canada. There’s this one place, Art City, in Old Damascus that has absolutely breathtaking paintings. Scarves, rugs, umm, Syrian stuff, lingerie *grin*, they’re all here and all good. Or so I hear.
Chanel, Burberry, Gucci, Louis Vutton, Nike, Adidas, Puma – you’ll see them so often you’d think money (or Italian goods) grows on trees. Sometimes they’re so fake you’ll laugh. Abibas anyone? A backwards Nike check? Or, one of my favorites: A D & G shirt that says “Delicious and Gorgeous” on the back. LOL! Other times they’re so real you’d literally have to dissect the thing to be able to tell the difference.
so like home, yet so far away. Sometimes I feel like the kid at the candy store, with her face pressed up against the glass. In fact, if I had a dime for each time I said “but I used to buy it for …. much!” I’d have enough to actually buy it. It depends on the item and its rarity. Some things (like chocolate bars THANK GOD) are the same. For example, Snickers is as Snickers does. 35 SYP is less than 1 USD. Others (clothes) are so expensive you want to cry. Sales are non-existent here. Remember clearance? Or seeing 70 percent off? Here it’s only 70 percent off if it’s the only item left in the one size and the one color. Things I cannot live without – my creams, deodorants, shoes, notebooks, binders (they’re only four ring here) – I still have kind people bring over for me. Otherwise everything’s here. Only more expensive.
What I’d bring:
- Walking shoes!!
- Loose, linen clothing
- Your appetite
- Your sense of humor
- A travel guide is a plus
Camera: Obvious. But have it fully loaded and at the ready at all times. Syria is breathtaking. And hilarious. In other words, every moment is a Kodak moment.
Walking shoes: I can’t stress this enough. This is one of my personal regrets. I’ve been here for around 3 years and have bought a grand total of 2 pairs of shoes which I wear next to never. As Syrians are fond of saying “It’s not the shoes or the roads! It’s our feet that’re built wrong!” Syrian footwear quality is so bad, it’s nonexistent (if you’re wondering about imported shoes, they are one of the rarities. Expect to pay. A. Lot.)
Loose, linen clothing: Not only is it hot and humid, but while there is no haraam police (a la Saudi Arabia) and it poses no real danger, I believe you don’t want to walk around in a miniskirt and tube top. Some areas are more ‘Westernized’ than others and no one’ll give you a second glance. But in others, the interesting ‘Syrian’ ones in my opinion, you will attract a lot of attention. Harmless but very annoying.
Your appetite: thank God for Syrian food! An oft over looked and not very well know but nevertheless instilled in every Syrian Syrian motto is: Food will make it better. And what food! If you so happen to be thin, everyone will comment on how you are a sack of bones that needs to be fed! And will proceed to lavish various dishes upon you. And Syrian women are competitive when it comes to culinary abilities. They’ll each try and out do the other. In fact, you may wanna pack those clothes a size larger….
Your sense of humor: Syrians mean well (I hope). They’re generally a kind, helpful bunch who’d like nothing more than to help a foreigner or woman out. And they’re still a chivalrous bunch. Entering a full bus means the seats within your vicinity will be automatically emptied and everyone will swear to God that you shall sit! You should. It makes them feel good =) But sometimes they’re … well, they’re Syrians. Expect catcalls, whistles, the occasional stalker, swooning, and to be blown kisses. I once had to attempt to console an inconsolable woman (from France) in the streets because “some random guy had whistled at her.” Poor thing had never felt so objectified in her life. I’m not being sarcastic! It pisses me off too, but it may be easier to laugh it off. He wasn’t about to lure her down some alley and rape her. It’s innocent fun to them. And maybe a chance to woo you.
A travel guide: There is a lot to see and (unless you’re here for the long haul) very little time! I personally love Old Damascus. I’d sleep in the Umayyad mosque and be up and about at daybreak, only they don’t let you and there is no internet connection that I’ve heard of. And I personally prefer toilets that are two feet off the ground and have a seat rather than a hole in the ground.
You may wonder about:
Speaking English: you’re going to get ripped off, I’m sorry, but that’s unavoidable because they will pick up on your accent anyway, however slight. But people will understand you, which means you’ll end up (generally) with what you want.
Smiling at people: please do. I’ve watched foreigners walk in with their nose in the air and leave people with an everlasting bad impression of wherever it was they were from. Everyone likes nice people =)
Taking taxis: do. And do start conversations! Taxi drivers are like the underground of Damascus. They are the storehouse of Syrian information. They are benign forces with infinite knowledge of what’s what, who’s who, and where’s where.
Wacky Syrian Exclusives: do take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Syrians like to know everything or that failing pretend they know everything, and will rarely say “I don’t know.” If you do hear one say it, please tape record, date and send to me. Even our friends the taxi drivers. Example: “That building over there is a new Shariia (Islamic law) school! It’s even shaped like an open book, see?” My mum went there to check it out and it turns out to be the Ministry of Oil Drilling or something. There’re also, as I mentioned, the cat calls, jeers, leers, etc. Try not to be too offended. The rips offs as well.
Your foreignness: use it to your advantage – especially if it’s off the bat noticeable. I used to get on the bus with a simple yet powerful statement: “I want…*pause*” Like magic. Without exception the bus driver would seat me behind him, ask me where I was going, and let me know when to get off.
it may be different, smell, and contain parts of animals you probably wouldn’t consider eating of your own free will, but on the whole it’s regular old food. Ask before eating. I once ate the intestines of a sheep stuffed with rice and chickpeas. It was delicious. Or was delicious prior to my asking “what exactly is this?” and subsequent lack of appetite. I’ve also been offered brains, tongues, and A Sheep’s Head – I kid (pun!!) you not. Other than the lamb thing, everything else is honestly scrumptious. Stuffed grape leaves? Tabooleh? Homos? Kebbeh? Yuuum.
Handshaking: Susanne mentioned handshaking. This is touchy (lool!). Most people I’ve met, my family included, shake hands. I don’t lol. I think it’s highly personal and I believe there’s no need to feel embarrassed either way. If you shake, extend your hand out. If you don’t then don’t. Above all else you should feel comfortable and not change who you are =). I don’t think it’s insulting gesture to extend your hand, just like I believe it isn’t to refuse a hand. They’ll just have to adjust.
Kisses: They kiss kiss cause Syrians’re European, haven’t you heard? Some will actually kiss your cheek, others the air beside your ear, others’ll do this cheek bone bump. Beats me. Some’ll do three, others’ll do two. It’s like the sidewalk thing, when you dance to get out of each others way, when one wants to do two and the other three. LOL. If you sort of slightly lean back or cross one arm of over your chest while you extend your hand then they generally won’t kiss you, if that’s what you like. But don’t kiss the other sex, please!! They’re not that European.
Standing distance: I remember my senior year Social Studies teacher telling us how they video taped a Western man and a Middle Eastern man talking, and how they actually walked the length of a corridor because the latter would constantly step closer while the former stepped back. I read this in some textbook or other too, so I don’t doubt it. And I’ve dealt with Syrians who stand so close they’re almost but not quite in your face. There really isn’t anything you can do as evidenced by walking the length of a hallway, but forewarned is forearmed. Place a table between the two of you. Be innovative!
Attire: I mentioned loose, linen clothing? I’m personally not a fan of form fitting, painted on jeans. They’re uncomfy. I like comfort and I don’t like being reduced to my body. That’s personally speaking. Non-personally, if that’s the way you dress then feel free. Like I said about handshaking, be who you’re comfortable being. I’ve noticed that most tourists do dress in a certain type of clothes, though. Loose, sexless clothing usually in dull colors. Sort of like a safari gypsy with a little Aladdin thrown in? I think it’s adorable. You don’t have to go that far, but a wise someone once said “When in Rome….” On the same note, I’m (personally) not fully comfortable with niqab in North America, for example. You stick out like a sore thumb, I’m sorry. There’s a balance between the two, I think.
Toilets: When we were renovating our house, my mom bought a home a Grohe catalogue. Grohe is German made, luxury bathroom/kitchen faucets, bidets, and what not. So whilst flipping through I was shocked to see this:
In syria this is known as: toilet arabi. Once upon a time, they were the reigning toilets. I refuse to use one of these. I’ve had to, on a few occasions, since I have the bladder of a bladderless person. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the results were not pretty. Thankfully though, you shouldn’t have to worry about it. The majority of new restaurants have, what they call, ‘frenchie” toilets. As in twwalet (which is toilet only pronounced twaalate) frenji (frenchie with a j instead of a ch). Btw, you’ll notice a lot of French words. Off the top of my head are: Baignoire -> Bathtub. Maillot de bain (or maillot for short)-> Swim suit. What’s funny is when they want to feminize, singularize, possessive-ize a word. So “your maillot” becomes “maillot-yek.” LOL!! Back to the point, they’re not so common now a days. Most modern houses, and those that have been renovated, contain both sorts. All modern restaurants and cafes – especially those in the tourist district – have regular ones. A lot of places that have stalls, such as mosques, large restaurants, schools, etc have a one regular toilet – usually located in the last stall.
Money: I mentioned (somewhere or other) about cash vs Visa (credit cards). Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are slowly making their appearance in Syria. I’ve yet to work out the trend or rhyme and reason behind why some places have them and others don’t. Or wait, I think it’s “where the tourists are.” I’ll have to check but that could possibly be the reasoning! Because all hotels, airline offices, and the gift/souvenir shops in Old Damascus have them. But so do the high end stores and the malls. Hmm. Guess not then. But you will find some stores that accept credit cards. Like Canada, they’ll have the logo pasted onto their doors. But a lot of run of the mill places (including the afore mentioned Art City) don’t. So maybe both would be wiser.
In the occasion one gives you a gift and you’re returning it, or you’re visiting someone’s house and the like: Chocolate isn’t really given, but sweets are. Cakes – which you can either buy whole or random slices – baklava, or any kind of Arabic sweet are more common. In fact, I’d say that’s the most common. Flowers are also starting to make an appearance, but I’m not sure when. The only flowers I’ve received where from my ‘suitors’ so maybe it’s restricted to them? Go with sweets, I think. Safer so that your intentions aren’t misread =P
Bringing gifts over: I taught a course using Longman’s Total English book and it said
“Middle East: Give gifts of highest quality leather, silver, or crystal. Remember to avoid alcohol and leather from pigs.”
I have to agree, for the older generation(s). When we’d come for visits my parents’d bring silver stuff (like tea sets) and crystal for my grandparents and they go insane over them. Especially Bohemian crystal, my grandpa’s favorite. But you don’t have to shell out big time, lol. Anything works really. They love American/Canadian/European goods. Remember imported being expensive? My girl cousins go ape for make-up. And kids! Omg the poor children. New Boy and the like have just made their entrance into Syrian markets and are too expensive for many, many people. Regular toys suck. Both the actual toy and its quality. The kids loved the toys we’d bring them.
Tips: Taxis don’t expect tips. They start their meter at 5 pounds and generally round up. So if the meter reads 23 they say either 25 or 30. It’s mainly because we don’t deal in ones here. It’s all fives or tens. I usually round a little higher if the cabdriver wasn’t smoking, had no blaring music, and refrained from making my trip a bumpy ride through hell and putting me in serious danger. Syrians drive like…. a bat in hell comes to mind. Like they’re literally playing bumper cars only they stop at the last second so they don’t actually bump.
Waiters I like to tip. Unless the bill deducts a tip. Then I give them hell instead *grin.* But there is no 10% rule. It depends on your service, how happy you were with the food, etc. Sometimes I’d feel pressured to tip in Canada, like there was no other way to go. Here it’s your prerogative.
Right. So I’ve run out of ideas. If you’d like to modify, share, expound, omit, express, feel free. A lot of this may overlap (and I bet it does) but bear with.