Saturday, October 17, 2009

Week 2: DamasGate


Week 2

Have you ever been to the biggest restaurant in the world? I have. Yep that’s right, last night as a branch activity we had dinner at the Guinness Book of World Record’s biggest restaurant in the world. DamasGate can sit up to 6,015 people at one time. Dang! The coolest part about our branch activity is that it was on our Sabbath day, Friday. I still haven’t quite figured that part out. Oh the hardships of having the sacred day on Friday and not on Sunday. I really enjoy it.

The reason we went to this restaurant is because the church humanitarian aid program has a representative here for this week. There is a conference taking place on training neonatal resuscitation. It’s actually an amazing program and has already saved thousands of lives. There was a session here in Damascus and tomorrow they are heading up to Aleppo for more training. While the representative is here, our branch president wanted to give him a good time in Syria. This afternoon as an Elder’s quorum we are taking our guest to the hamam, or Turkish bath. You gotta love it baby.

Let me tell you about my Arabic. As you guys know, I like people. I like interacting with others. It’s where I get my energy. Communicating love and concern for other in deed and word is one of the most beautiful things experienced. That’s the reason I initially wanted to learn Arabic when I was first introduced to it 2 years ago, it’s the reason I want to learn it now. It’s the reason I flew halfway around the world. However to a foreigner wanting to learn the colloquial Arabic, the resources are limited. 99% of the people you meet learning Arabic are learning fusHa or Modern Standard Arabic, the formal Arabic This means that they are learning the international formal Arabic language. The Arab world, as most of you know, is far from being homogeneous in culture, politics, and yes even in language. The Arabic that the common people in Morocco speak for example is very different than the language spoken in Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia. It’s probably similar to something like Portuguese and Spanish. There are many very different dialects in the Arab world. With advancements in communication and media however, some dialects are becoming more familiar than others. Egyptian and Syrian dialects are perhaps the most widely know dialects as a result of entertainment. However to solve this problem of so many different dialects, Modern Standard Arabic became the official common language. It’s the very formal language spoken on the news or in academia, and derives from Quranic Arabic. Here in Syria everyone is educated in fusHa, but usually only speak it to foreigners that are trying to learn Arabic. When they do it is unnatural. This is the Arabic that American students learn. It’s very difficult for an American to communicate with someone on the street with fusHa and when doing so, essentially both speakers are speaking a second language. Upon understanding this concept of formal and colloquial Arabic better, I decided to learn the colloquial language. It wasn’t a difficult decision. I came all the way to Syria to communicate with the people, so why not learn the language that they speak?

As I mentioned before, other than the Syrian people, there are not many developed resources to learn the colloquial Arabic. I had to search through the city to find some books. One book I found is an illegal photocopy of a book, the other is a book that a store owner made and printed on a homemade press.

My new house is beautiful, my roommate is a stud, and the food here is scheduled to fatten me up. I am living my dream life. I am a blessed man.

The only downside is being away from the ones I love. I miss you guys and pray for you every day. I hope all is well.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Week 1-Alhamdulillah

I am overwhelmed at the greatness of God. Allah Akhbar! God is great! I’ve been very intrigued by names. In Arab culture, names are very important and always have a deep and significant meaning attached. Everytime I am introduced or meet somebody they always ask me the meaning of my name. Growing up this never was really an important tradition for me, so I actually don’t really know the meaning of my name and most of the people don’t speak English well enough to know the deeper nuanced chivalries of “palace of fairies.” 90% of the population here is Islam, with that most names have a deep Islamic religious background. Ibrahiim (Abraham), Yousef (Joseph), Mohhamad, Ammar (Believer), and Abdullah (servant of Allah) are very common. One of my friends told me the meaning of his name yesterday, given the logistical context of my situation right now and what was taking place in that very moment, it became very important to me.

Ahmed. Ahmed told me that his name means to give thanks to Allah. It’s not just the regular everyday word that one would use in the street, or at school, or even to someone you’d like to show respect to like your parents or an elder. It is only used to express heavenly gratitude. Our thanks to Allah should be so holy, that in Arabic there is a word to express sacred gratitude. As he was telling me this it just happened to be about 11:00 at night. He and a team of three of his friends had put their lives on pause on a Thursday night (the equivalent of a Friday weekend night in the U.S.) to help some stranger that one of them had met briefly for 5 minutes a few days before. I was in awe.

I give sacred thanks to God for ALL that he has done for me this last week. Unbelievable! Story after story after story of the many times he has extended his hand. His hand has been manifested to me in the form of his servants’ service. Arab hospitality is famous the world over, and as you guys know I’ve experienced it before. However, it still hasn’t and I don’t think ever will cease to amaze me. Literally anywhere I go, and anytime I need help, someone is there willing to stop anything they are doing, and give me anything they have to offer. Such examples include a shoe maker demanding to take my watch that wasn’t working and put a battery in it, people escorting me on public transportation to make sure I go where I need to go, people offering their homes, tons of free food, and etc etc.

I give sacred thanks to him for my loved ones. You guys I know have been selflessly praying for me. I know this because it doesn’t make sense logically how everything has worked out so beautifully, but it has. I know it is a result of your prayers for me. I thank you.

The greatest blessing, or at least the biggest tangible blessing was the house that I was able to find. Wow. Scott you are going to be jealous about this one. My house that I will be staying in for the next few months suits well the exotic oriental experience in store for me. Check out the specs on this baytii (my house): My house is located in the Old City of Damascus (A walled city with a huge citadel and small allies that are thousands of years old!) literally about 30 yards from the northeastern outer wall of the Ummayad Mosque and about 100 yards from one of the holiest Shiite mosques called Sayyida Ruquyya, wedged between the two. My house is absolutely amazing! It’s the classic old Mediterranean Arab house, but better. I’m still amazed that we got it. I looked at about 10 different houses within the price range of 15,000-20,000 Syrian Pounds and talked to many locals and even students that have lived here for about a year or so, this is by far the best deal. It’s a shared house, so it will be me and another Mormon kid that just barely got here, a Swedish girl and a couple of American students. It’s an Arab house meaning there is a big open-air living section and then rooms on all the levels that face inwards towards the middle open section. Somehow our part has it’s own kind of living quarter. After entering you can go to this bottom section or you can go up one of two stairways. We have our own stairway. You go up one stairway and it opens up to an outdoor patio. As you go up another old wooden weathered stairway you enter our section. It opens up into a small beautifully colored, window-lit room. This will be the study room. It couldn’t be better; my desk has a view of two of the three minarets of the Ummayad mosque. There is a bathroom and shower in this section too. In this cozy hallway study there are two doors. One leads to our private patio and one into our shared bedroom. Once again both of these sections have views of the bustling old city streets below as well as the two most important mosques in Damascus. I am still amazed. UNBELIEVABLE! (That one is for you Joe). A two minute walk leads us to the main street of the old city, sharia al-qaimariyya. My life is good.

My Moroccan roommate for my first week in the hotel is named Tareq. He is Muslim and runs to a mosque to pray whenever the call to prayer echoes through the city. I have many stories to tell of him. He is probably the most loving Christ like person I’ve ever met. He is pure. He is solid. He is fun and fantastic. I love him. We will be good friends for a very long time. Anyway I’ve decided the prayer call is a good reminder for myself as well. After returning from church this morning and then working a few things out with the new house, I returned to our temporary place. Tareq had just left for prayer so I decided to kneel in prayer also. I knelt down desiring to express my gratitude. After gathering my thoughts the perfect words came to mind.

“ahmed allah. Thank you God for blessing my life!”

There was no need to say more. It was one of the most powerful prayers I have ever offered.

As all of you know, learning another language can be very comical. I’ve had more than my fair share of those funny moments. I am always going places and am always trying to speak and meet as many people as possible. Public transportation in Syria is an experience only understood hands on. It’s complicated for Syrians, so imagine a goofy American trying to get it done. In a lot of ways it’s kinda fun. The buses don’t stop to let you on, you have to run and push and shove to get on, and they are extremely crowded. There are big buses and there are little microbuses, just little vans. Sometimes those little 8 people vans have 15 or more people. You know how excited I get when there are a lot of people within my vicinity? hyper! Then I try to communicate by practicing my words on my little notebook. I’m on a little microbus, with triple the amount of people there should be, holding my little notebook and pencil high in the air, and yelling at the top of my lungs trying to figure out from the van driver when I need to get off while not understanding anything he says in return. It’s really really really fun! Arabic enunciation is very difficult for native English speakers. Often times I find myself continually repeating words out loud in the streets. This is also a funny sight to the outsider. One time I caught myself doing this in an inopportune moment. I ended up laughing really hard at myself. I was trying to talk to Tareq and another friend named Yeheeya (the shoe repair man). In the Egyptian colloquial I learned, kawayyis means good. In the unspoken more formal, or the type that most Americans learn at the university, they use the word jayyiid (That’s you Jude!). Here in Syria, the word for good is mneeHH, it is very difficult to pronounce. I said a very simple slow sentence using the word kawayyis. As soon as it came out of my mouth I remembered the other word and corrected myself. Once again it’s difficult to pronounce and forgetting that they were right there, I started saying it many times, over and over working on the pronunciation. There I was yelling a word that didn’t make any sense to them over and over.

I knew little of the Ommayad mosque before coming here and definitely underestimated it’s significance. This place is the real deal! Traditionally, it is said that Muhammad once while traveling, overlooked the city of Damascus from a mountain and said that he will not go down unto the city but will travel on because he only wants to enter paradise once, meaning when he dies. The mosque is in the location of worship dating back to the 9th century BC when the Aramaeans built a temple to their god Hadad (mentioned in the Book of Kings). Later the Romans expanded it to make a temple to their god Jupiter. When Constantine came to power a massive basilica was made to commemorate John the Baptist, whose head is said to be contained here even until this day. Muslims first came here in 636 and Muslims and Christians prayed side by side for 70 years. During this time Damascus became the Muslim capital and eventually the place underwent a10 year construction period of a new mosque sponsored by the caliph Khaled ibn al-Walid. Almost all the walls were covered with amazing mosaics, precious gems and stones inlaid in the prayer niches, and a golden ceiling hung with 600 gold lamps!

Today the mosque is considered by all Syrians and many Muslims from all over the world to be the third holiest mosque, only the mosques in Medina and Mecca are more important! Within the grounds of the mosque lies the mausoleum of the Arab hero Salah ad-Din, the shrine of John the Baptist, and the shrine of Hussein (important Shia Islam figure) In Islamic tradition this place still holds a significant role in the future also. As I mentioned before there are three huge minarets. The tallest of these is called the Minaret of Jesus. It is said that here Christ will appear on earth to defeat the anti-Christ and then make his way to Jerusalem on Judgment Day. Once again at this point I would just like to remind you that I all of this is my backyard! I live here!

I love you guys so much. Being half way across the world has highlighted once again how wonderful you are. Thank you.

p.s. Please excuse all grammatical errors. Let’s just face it. I’m bad! Also I didn’t have the time to proofread. Sorry.