We arrived in Damascus during ‘Eid al-fitr, a weekend of celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. The streets of the Old City were crammed, and we wove our way through groups of tourists, who descend on Damascus in their coach loads from the Gulf and Iran. Amongst the hordes of tourists parades of Syrian school boys pushed their way cockily through the crowds, many armed with toy guns, gifts from relatives given during the long weekend of family visits, shared meals and parties.
One group of boys seemed particularly intrigued by us, the only westerners and in my case, the only person wearing shorts. I have never felt so foreign in my life and when we were approached outside the Umayyad Mosque, by a modestly dressed young woman requesting a photo, I realised that it was perhaps as rare for her to see a woman’s knees in public as it was for her to visit the Mosque; 4000 miles from our own home and we were the tourist attraction.
It was an intense introduction to the country and not greatly representative of Syrian daily life. When the bank holiday tourists had departed and people went back to work, we were able to find ourselves a home and settle into life. This was not without its challenges, particularly communicating with our neighbours. After a year of studying Modern Standard Arabic not one of us spoke more than a line of the local dialect and we soon found that our year of hard study was less use to us in the local shops than the ability to point, nod and smile. However, out of necessity, we quickly picked up enough of the language to go about our daily business and begin to feel part of the local community.
One of the most striking things about Damascus is the complicated, often confused, fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. In cafes, it is a common site to see a group of immaculately dressed young Syrian women, wearing slim-fitting western dress, complete with hijab and jewelencrusted sunglasses. Western popular culture has clearly made a great impression upon the country’s youth population, with many young people learn English through watching American films and music channels.
As such, general perceptions of the West are perhaps as s k e w e d as the West’s view of Syria as a land of camels and terrorists. Yet, the idolisation of western culture on the part of many young Syrians is perhaps a symptom of a more serious problem than a dubious partiality for American gangster rap. Following decades of stifling censorship, the country is severely suffering from a “brain drain”, as the country’s intelligent and skilled middle class continue to depart for the West in search of better paid work and greater freedom of expression.
Yet, despite its problems, Syrians continue to live up to their reputation as some of the friendliest and welcom- ing of the region. Damascus is a quirky and energetic city and an exciting place to be a student.