Long weeks and Long days
To those who might be checking this out after a protracted absence, I truly am going to try and maintain something of a blog. The purpose of writing is twofold -- to share with you, dear reader, the daily folds and wrinkles of life as happens here in Damascus and to keep my own record that I can refer to in the future when my sieve of a brain has gotten the best of me. Accountability!
What better place to (re)start than laughing at myself? In my earlier posts I talked about finding a place to live... this place has totally worked out and I've just started taking advantage of the sizable terrace to enjoy morning workouts. Delightful, refreshing, invigorating, and with at least two sets of neighbors' eyes curiously wondering what that asian girl is doing as she swing her legs around in an armada, dips down for a mealua de campaso, and stretches out in a handstand. I tried out some kata as well and ran through drem exercise, remembering just last September when I What I think the neighbors didn't see me do was LOCK MYSELF OUT! Oi, a sweet morning buzz turns into smoke signals!
My roommate was sight unseen and all of a sudden I wished for those friendly (I hope) neighborly eyes that might send Damascus' best firefighters out to rescue the foreigner. Haha. I tinkered with the stubborn door, jammed my thumb in the other patio door, and banged my head against the window.... the window! Sure enough, the screen slid back easily and the glass slid back just as easily. Whew... I clambered through the kitchen, watered the plants, and went back outside to stretch a little before calling it a morning.
Foibles aside, I've settled into a good rhythm here. Why not begin with yesterday? I'm translating a proposal on "Trauma and Music in Beirut" from English to Arabic and spent a chunk of the morning inputting the edits that my tutor and I reviewed yesterday. Private lessons with Dalalah have been quite excellent and highly recommended to those engaged in the lifelong pursuit of acquiring Arabic. We meet for six hours a week and the personalized, integrated curriculum includes articles on the role of culture (artistic, traditional, popular in music and dance) in Syria and in the greater Arab world. We've watched documentaries from Al-Jazeera's documentary channel, and my favorite is translating songs like Fares Karam's current billboard chart "Khetyar Al Akkaze"...yow! what a song! I hear it everywhere now. I'll elaborate on its smart lyrics in a future post about gender relations and masculinity in public spaces (hint, hint, check back soon)...
Next I spent two hours in the library of IFPO -- Institut Francais Proche-Orient -- which is more or less the main portal for academics working in Syria. More translation work, this time a chapter on dabke from a book on Syrian folklore published in 1987. Ironically enough I didn't actually retrieve the book from IFPO's holdings, rather, a friend of a friend offered his autographed copy for temporary loan when he heard of my interest in dabke traditions... perhaps an example of the chance nature of encounter during ethnographic fieldwork? The text is actually quite lovely in that it offers descriptions of regional styles and raises questions about the distinction between a unified Syrian cultural form and regional variation. Or, to quote from p261:هل دبك هو الدنك و دبكة هي الدبكة؟
Though trite and perhaps oversimplified, this question remains current if we think about Bab Al-Hara, the melodramatic miniseries that aired during Ramadan and portrayed an early twentieth century era when "a man was a man." Again, many thoughts to table for the moment
Next I grabbed a quick falafel and carrot juice (total value USD 1) for lunch, tried to pick up a pair of jeans that were being hemmed but apparently not ready due to electricity outages, and headed out to the suburbs. Every Tuesday afternoon I visit with two families and work with the kids on English lessons. The families both arrived from Baghdad about a year or so ago and the kids are trying to keep afloat in their elementary school classes in which they are placed according to age rather than level. This is not as problematic as it could be, but they definitely benefit from unadultered attention and I benefit from feel-good work that builds networks of intimacy. What kind of intimacy? Yesterday the kids were rather hyper so after helping M. prepare for his test on possessive pronouns, we started doing cartwheels, handstands, and bridges all throughout the apartment. The family is incredibly gifted in terms of gymnastic flexibility and the kids used to take classes at a sports club in Baghdad. And it definitely all comes from their high-spirited mom, who after three children is as flexible as a newborn child. They insisted I show them some capoeira moves and Lotus kata forms, which of course I obliged!
I headed out several hours later, grabbing some fresh samoon as I do every Tuesday, and met up with a friend visiting from Hama (city in a mountainous region north of Damascus). We had met several weeks ago at a gathering of American and Syrian twenty-somethings interested in exchange and he encouraged me to try to see some dabke in Hama. Unfortunately these plans didn't quite work out but dinner was simply lovely... especially when our conversation ended on how obsessed our families are with Costco! (Dad, take note.. Costco may be a more universal phenomenon than Starbucks).
A quick note on the venue: La Casa is my new favorite restaurant in Damascus. Its perfect anytime of day or night-- the fastest free wireless in the city and quality espresso make for a good morning. Daily lunch specials of homecooked Syrian cuisine are attractive. Moreover, when I informed our server that I'm lactose-intolerant and not interested in the cream (that burdens nearly every dish) they offered a special fish entree that was splendid. Grilled white fish topped with a spicy (hard to find here!) heated tomato relish popping with bakdonis (parsley), filfil (bell peppers), and more. And the ambience is relentlessly charming as the multiple rooms are fashioned after all that a house contains-- a sidewalk patio, outside terrace, salon, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen -- and a playful change from the Old City's restored spaces.
After dinner, my friend had to head back to Hama and avoid evening traffic, so I went over to Dar Al-Assad, the opera house, to catch a dance performance. The cultural life of this city is ideal for a culture vulture like myself. Whereas last week featured the annual Damascus Film Festival, this week features Meeting Points 5, a contemporary arts festival that speaks for itself (see future posts). This evening presented a solo dance by an artist from Tunisia. Unfortunately we left less-than-impressed with the choreography and the performance. I hesitate to elaborate too much on a critical review of the show, except to say that there was neither one element that eclipsed others (such as narrative, technique, gestures, interplay between music and movement) nor a distinct aesthetic that emerged. Perhaps I learned more about my own aesthetics... (NB: on the other hand, last night's performance by a Brazilian modern dance company, Grupo de Rua de Niteroi, was stunning and provoked much discussion... more later).
The evening ended quietly with tea and chocolate at a nearby cafe and I came home to prep for the next day.