My window on Damascus
My plane touched down at 2 a.m. on the last day of August. By 3:30, I arrived at my hotel. Al-hamdoolilah as-salameh -- praised be God for your well-being -- I told the driver. He smiled and responded: Allah isalmak -- may God protect you. It’s a ritual exchange that completes every safe passage in Syria. I stepped onto the curb and into the warm summer early morning, taking with me my two giant duffel bags, leather satchel and hard-sided rolling carry-on -- my life for the next nine months.
Two days later, I moved into a room in the Christian quarter of the Old City. The neighborhood is called Bab Touma -- Thomas Gate -- and is home to some 500 foreigners -- mostly European students studying Arabic -- renting rooms in the ancient houses tightly packed in a warren of one-way cobbled streets and alleyways. My room sits atop the 13th-century city walls and its large windows overlook a Muslim cemetery, an old green-domed mosque and, beyond, Mount Qasyioun, the desert mountain that looms over the city.
A busy strip of pavement with an indeterminate number of lanes -- like most roads in the city, there are no painted lines -- runs 25 feet below my windows. During the day, the clip-clop of horses pulling vegetable carts mix with horns of all pitches and cadences, and the drone of city buses, minivans, mopeds, cars. At night, it becomes like ocean waves.
I live with Abu Mousa, the 80-year-old family patriarch who often wears a white dishdasha, the traditional Arabic robe, and cooks extravagant lunches for me as a stand-in for his two sons living in America; his daughter Juliet, who offers tea and candy and insists on ironing my shirts when she thinks they appear too wrinkled, and her son, Basil, an Arabic teacher and the only one of the family who speaks English.
On my fifth day, I started private Arabic lessons: Syrian dialect and Modern Standard Arabic. These will keep me busy until I begin classes at Damascus University in a few weeks. This begins my fourth year studying the language and its dialects. That’s a long time to apply to anything, much less a language that I’ll never perfect. As I once again plunge into the well-worn pages of my Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, every English- and German-speaking Arabic student’s best friend, I find myself asking why? A quest for mere competence? A yearning to discover more of the secrets of a beautiful language: its subtleties -- the myriad connotations behind a single word -- and its precision? The satisfaction that comes with conversing with a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, a Syrian on the street asking me -- me?! -- for directions? It happened again, today. A window -- my window -- on the Arab world.