Losing yourself in the Old City of Damascus is a must for anyone who visits Syria. It's easy to envision some ancient tale of intrigue lurking behind the corner of every meandering alley. But perhaps the best part of getting lost here is suddenly finding yourself in the courtyard of the Great Mosque. It was in this beautiful and historic space of reverence and calm that I decided to extend my stay in Damascus. Beyond simply being a tourist, I wanted to get a taste of what it was like to live in the Middle East. My growing fascination with this city, and my desire to pick up some of the local language, led me to enroll for an introductory course in Arabic at the University of Damascus. Within four days, I jumped through all the necessary hoops: visiting the heavily fortified US embassy to get Uncle Sam's approval, waiting in a long line outside of a Syrian clinic for a blood test in order to be confirmed HIV negative (not kidding!), and successfully finding a place to live for the next month. Before I knew it, I was in a classroom, copying down Arabic script from a whiteboard, and struggling to correctly pronounce Arabic syllables. What? You mean to tell me that you have a letter that sounds like "aaaaaaAAAAHHHH"???
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Most of my classmates had already studied Arabic before, some for years, and by the second day I already felt way behind. After four hours a day of intensive learning in the classroom, all I wanted to do was go back to my house, lay down and put a bag of ice on my overwhelmed brain. But I needed to spend several additional hours each day in order to complete the day's homework as well as study so as to not fall further behind. I'm proud to say that I can now read and write some basic Arabic. But I'm not too proud to admit that I have no desire to study more. I'll leave that to others who are willing to dedicate years of their life in order to master what many say is the most difficult language on the planet.
|The School where I studied Arabic|
|Our Class Teacher, Lama|
When I wasn't studying or exploring Damascus, I was simply enjoying my accommodations in the heart of the Old City. In the middle of dust, noise, and chaos, I had found a spacious room in an attractive and tranquil house. Sure, there was often no hot water, making for some pretty cold showers. In fact, there weren't even shower curtains. The door to the toilet wouldn't close, and there was no leg room in front of the commode, requiring me to sit sideways while forcibly holding the bathroom door shut (wiping has never been such a challenge). The kitchen was filthy, the washing machine didn't work half of the time, and the furniture in the house courtyard routinely broke. But things like this are completely normal in Syria, and I loved being in that house; For all it's faults, the building oozed character. In addition, I had interesting roommates from all over the globe. Last but not least, I was living in the historic heart of (quite possibly) the oldest city in the world.
|Entrance to the House from the Front Alleyway|
|Hadi and Leo, from Syria and Palestine, relaxing in our House Courtyard|
There are many more things that I found enchanting about Damascus. The food. Correction: The glorious, glorious, food. The stunningly restored Ottoman houses in the Old City. How cheap most things were. Combining all of the above into one experience (Eating cheap, delicious food in the atmospheric courtyard of a beautiful Ottoman house-cum-restaurant in the Old City.) The friendliness of most Syrian people. The amazing opera house where the best seat in the house costs 6 dollars. The spice-scented souks (bazaars) where I shopped and succeeded in decorating my room on a tiny budget. Seeing heroic pictures of the strongman leader of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, pasted on every available public surface (not because I'm particularly fond of him, just because it provided a constant reminder that I was in a different world.) But mostly, I loved the feeling that shadows of bygone civilizations hastened to follow me wherever I roamed.
November 8th, 2010; a day that I will never forget. The spectacular sunset over Damascus; the eager anticipation of upcoming adventures to Petra, to Jerusalem, to the Pyramids. But above all, I will remember this day because of what happened when returning home later that evening.
I was walking down a poorly lit sidewalk on a residential street. Something caught my attention on the other side of the road, and I turned my head to observe while continuing to walk straight ahead. Suddenly, the sidewalk came to an end, and the ground abruptly dropped 3 feet. My attention diverted from this lurking danger, I stepped forward only to feel my foot plunge into empty space below. My right foot took the brunt of the unexpected impact and my ankle violently twisted under my body as I fell in extreme pain.
I have had some pretty serious injuries in my life. I've ripped cartilage, ruptured ligaments, and torn tendons. But never have I felt the utter agony that I did in that moment; an anguish that nearly brought me to tears. Some onlookers heard my cries of distress, quickly retrieved their car, and rushed me to the nearest hospital. I was whisked into the ER, and wheel-chaired into the Radiology room for X-Rays. I immediately feared for the worst; a broken ankle that would put me in a cast for weeks and potentially put an end to my travels. The doctor saw no fracture on the X-Ray, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. In fact, he informed me that I had only suffered a minor, "Grade 1" ankle sprain, and would be fine within a week. Giving me nothing more than some bandage wrap and painkillers, the doctor sent me home and told me to rest and ice the ankle for the next couple of days. I was skeptical. No crutches, no brace, no physical therapy? But at that moment, I put my faith in his assessment, paid my bill, and left. The kind strangers who had brought me to the hospital and patiently waited through all of this, then graciously drove me all the way home and wished me a speedy recovery.
One week passed, my ankle was extremely swollen and I still could not walk normally. I returned to the same hospital as before, purportedly the "best in all of Syria", and met with an Orthopedic Surgeon. With only a cursory glance at my injury, he echoed the original doctor's diagnosis: no fracture, minor sprain. He took the additional measure of securing me a simple brace to immobilize my ankle, and said I should avoid rigorous activity for the time being. I still was skeptical. "Are you sure this is just a sprain? I don't need physical therapy?" But he downplayed my concerns and told me I'd be back to normal soon. After starting with the brace, my ankle did seem to start improving every day. So, a couple of weeks later, I felt that I was ready to travel on to Amman, Jordan, the launching point for visiting Petra. This was fortunate because my Syrian Visa was expiring on that very day. And this was no country in which I wanted to test the authorities by overstaying my welcome.
|Hills of Amman, Jordan|
After a nine-hour odyssey to traverse a mere 109 miles, I arrived in Amman, and I was limping. Clearly I had not been ready to travel. My ankle stiffened up, and depressingly I felt restricted to a small radius outside of my bare-bones hotel. Resigned that I needed to seek more treatment, I started searching for qualified doctors in Amman. Supposedly, the health care in Jordan's capital is excellent for the region. But of the three different Jordanian specialists with whom I visited, I was completely underwhelmed. Between the language barrier and lower standard of practice, I did not feel I could trust anything they advised. So, I resolved to receive a few ultrasound therapy sessions, and then move on to a place where I could lie low and take it easy, in the hopes that my ankle would heal on its own, as sprains normally do.
Little did I know that my chosen destination would soon ignite into a revolution that would change the Arab world forever.