Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Strangers Among Us

Wandering the narrow, vine-laden streets of the Damascus’s Old City one is likely to run into ones share of ajaanib (foreigners). You can pick them out from 50 yards (Hint: the shorts are a dead give away) shopping in the souq or frequenting one of the many restaurants located in historic Arab houses. We poke fun at them from time to time but they are generally nice and somewhat adventurous people enjoying a pleasant holiday away from home. However, there is the other kind: the annoying, trite and obnoxious kind that most of us avoid like a bible salesman with a flesh-eating virus. Every place attracts its own variety of ajaanib depending on its location and Damascus is no difference. Below I have included a list of the most common (and annoying forms) of these species to roam the streets of the Old City. For the sake of clarity, this list is mostly confided to those varieties that are found among foreigner under the age of 30.

1. The Tourist
The most common variety of foreigner in any city in the Middle East the Tourist is easily identified by their ridiculous choice of dress. In spite of the fact that they are in a major city, they seem to always be convinced that they are actually on safari through the Australian outback and therefore in need of 20 pounds of gear. They never leave their hotels without a backpack or fanny pack, three lenses for their camera, a floppy hat of the fisherman variety and water bottle. The look is incomplete if at least 50 percent of what they are wearing is not khaki in color. While the older variety tends to travel in packs that are always 10 feet behind a tour guide, the younger ones often travel on a shoe string budget in groups of 2 or 3 with a guide book always in hand. They stay for a few days and are then off to some new location.

2. The Free Spirit
The Free Spirit is probably the most common form of foreigner living in the Old City. They tend to be rather disheveled in their overall appearance, with the men sporting T-shirts and shorts (those shorts again) and the women preferring long flowing shirts and tank tops. Common accessories include: kaffiyahs (Arab scarves), various kinds of bracelets and Middle-Eastern rebel chic items (Hezbullah instead of the more common Che. ) They tend to live in dilapidated apartments in the Old City for a few months with others of their kind for which they dish out a few hundred dollars while living on the staples of shawarma, saj, falafel and beer.* If they ask them about the reason for being in Syria, they give vague answers about learning Arabic. You can at times find them attending classes at the University of Damascus but they never study much or stick around long. Before you know it they are gone, probably off to some new location to continue their Arabic “studies.” Some of them keep up this routine for years until their money runs out –or their parents’ patience.

3. The Nativist
The Nativist and The Free Spirit often have a great deal in common in terms of habits and dress but with some very important difference. The Nativist prides him or herself on his or her knowledge of the Middle East, which tends to be the kind of understanding gained froma year or two of Arabic and a freshman introduction course on Middle Eastern culture taken two years ago. Committed to being “sensitive” to Arab culture they tend to adopt an image of Middle Eastern as stagnant, reactionary, and extremely religious and therefore act accordingly. At the same time, they are always trying to adapt and fit into a culture that they fundamentally do not understand, and are always in search of some authentic Middle Eastern experience that does not really exist. They can often be heard making wide and often unintentionally negative (usually wrong) pronouncements about Middle Eastern society. Women that have fall into this category are often seen wearing the hijab (headscarf) around Damascus, a habit that greatly confuses the majority of Syrians. For example, I once heard a woman describing how shocked she was to see prostitutes hocking their wares out in the open in Bab Touma (The Christian neighborhood). Someone else had to explain to her that women she was describing were not in fact prostitutes but simply Syrian women out for the night.

4. The Opportunist
Unlike the previous categories, the Opportunist cannot be identified by any particular way of dress or behavior but more by his or her attitude. The Opportunist views the Arab language and an understanding of the Middle East as future marketable skill to land a job. They tend to be more serious Arabic students that their free spirited collogues and some are actually rather good. However, there knowledge of the region tends to be heavily biased by their intractable worldview. Beyond Arabic studies, they can also occasionally be found padding their resumes with internships at the many embassies. Overall, they tend to dislike the Middle East and consider their time as a necessary evil that will help their future advancement. This negative attitude makes them some of the least pleasant people to spend time around with and colors their view of everything in Syria. They often subject you to their own analysis of Middle Eastern politics at social events, which usually included an overly loud defense of US foreign policy or Israel. The Opportunist has no greater dream than to one day land a lucrative government job - preferably for the CIA.

5. The Future Academic
Like the Opportunist, the Future Academic is also identified by their overall attitude. Serious students of Middle Eastern politics, culture and language, they hope to one day land a comfortable university position based on their research. Often the most knowledgeable, they are frequently able to look at Middle Eastern society critically and avoid the idealized view of the Free Spirits or the overly negative view of the Opportunists. The younger ones are committed to their Arabic studies and are always planning on starting advanced degrees in the near future, or at least that is what they claim. The older ones sometimes live in Syria for year and are always working on some great research project that they are happy to talk about endlessly with anyone that will listen. However, avoid asking them about their actual progress unless you want to see a look of absolute panic. At their best, they are interesting, engaging and well-thought people that can talk endlessly about a variety of topics. At their worst, they are over caffeinated, socially awkward know-it-alls that are incapable of holding on a conversation that does not include their own obscure area of research that they and three other people actually understand.

* Saj is flat bread similar to a crepe, which is cooked on a flat stone and then filled with sweet or savory ingredients such as cheese, meat, Middle Eastern spreads or chocolate and honey.