I’ve only been once to a Turkish bath, or hammam as they are called in Arabic. I don’t know that I’ll ever go again, but it was certainly an experience. The hammam I attended was the Hammam al-Nasri, located in a 14th century building in the charming old city of Aleppo, Syria. I don’t remember every single detail, but there are certain parts that really stick out. After disrobing and putting on a special towel, I was ushered into the steam room, where I was soon surrounded by billowing white clouds, which rendered it impossible to see anything more than a few feet away. After a while, I noticed that from the direction of the indistinguishable doorway I could descry a dark shape. In a moment, it had materialized in the form of a very large and nearly naked woman, who beckoned to me ominously. Summoning all my courage, I followed her into a somewhat less steamy room. She sat me down on the floor in front of her, and lathered up my hair. Then she took off my towel (my only attire), had me lie on the floor, and scrubbed me all over. If you have never been given a very rough naked spa treatment by a female version of Hercules, you have never lived. By the time she decided I was clean, I was also thoroughly weirded out. When I emerged a couple of hours later, pink with the scrubbing, I was glad that I had been able to have the hammam experience. However, I decided that in the future my personal hygiene would remain, well, personal.
Bashar al-Assad, sometime doctor, now autocratic ruler of Syria, has killed at least 50 people during the past week, and probably far more. In their hearts, I think the Syrian people knew that they would pay a heavy price for freedom. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it has taken so long for protests to take off there, even though Syria is high on the list of the most repressive governments in the world. Emergency laws, in place for the past fifty years, allow the government to censor, arrest, torture, intimidate, and suspend most constitutional rights. And Syria has a lingering nightmare always in the back of its mind. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current dictator, presided over a massacre in the city of Hama that left tens of thousands of people dead. Just how many nobody knows for certain. Word didn’t leak out to the international community for weeks, and by then the dead had been interred in mass graves, and a blanket of enforced secrecy had fallen over the incident. In Syria, even mentioning the events in Hama is strictly forbidden. However, a full description of the massacre (not for the faint of heart) has been compiled by the Syrian Human Rights Committee.
“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” – T.E. Lawrence
What would it have been like to walk the streets of ancient Athens, and see Solon’s new laws resting in the Prytaneum? Or stand with the English barons as they forced King John to sign the Magna Carta? What must have been the atmosphere of the Second Continental Congress, as it took the helm of a revolutionary war and struggled to hammer out the structure of a government the people could believe in?
No, I’m not the expert. But I know someone who is. I graduated with a degree in Near Eastern Studies almost ten years ago, and spent my last semester of college studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria. I returned home only a few months before 9/11 changed the world and threw into devastating relief the deadly consequences of the misunderstandings and tensions between the Middle East and the West.
The professor who took my group to Syria, Kirk Belnap, is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Not only did he find myriad ways to make studying a very difficult language accessible and enjoyable, but he never let us forget that there was a reason we were studying it. Kirk, more than any other person, taught me to see the hand of God in my life and in events in the world around me. The six months I spent in the Middle East under his guidance left a huge impression on me and the way I view the world.
On the surface, the Foreign Service seemed like the perfect career for me. After all, wasn’t it right up my alley to have an excuse for moving to a different exotic country every couple of years? When I was taking Arabic classes in college, the Foreign Service (and other more bellicose elements of the U.S. government) loved to proselyte us. What better thing than to explore the world while serving your country and making a comfortable (and unbeatably secure) living? What better thing indeed.
I thought about it. I was still thinking about it when I went on a semester abroad to Syria. In fact, I can remember the exact moment when I decided that the Foreign Service was not for me. We had been in Syria for a month or two, not very long. We were on an intensive Arabic program, so our main homework was to talk to everyone and practice our language skills. Every day we went to morning classes at the University of Damascus, and then spent the rest of the day talking to Syrians. We talked at the university, in the bus, at the market, at friends’ houses, and in the fascinating winding streets of the Old City. Occasionally all the talking got us in trouble. I remember one bus ride where I and another young female student struck up a conversation with what seemed like a nice (and very chatty) man. After a while, the conversation got a little strange, and I began to have a rather horrible feeling about him. He was more and more aggressively insistent that he needed to walk us home. We politely demurred. It was getting dark, and there was no way we wanted him knowing where we lived. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do to prevent him from following us off the bus. Seeing nothing else for it, we had a rapid private conversation in English. As soon as we got off the bus, we both set off running. We ran past the watchful eyes of the security guards who stared and whistled at us in the mornings, hoping they would take pity on us and stop whoever was running after us. We ran all the way home, slammed the door, and locked it behind us, panting. Whether he couldn’t run as fast as we could or really was stopped by the guards, he never showed up again, much to our relief. And from then on, we realized it was good policy to always be friendly with the guards, even if the ogling was a bit annoying.
This is the time of year where I edit the newsletter for the group that went to Syria with me in 2001. BEFORE September 11th and all that. And so, this is the time when I think about that half a year I spent in the Middle East and fantasize about going back. I remember the grammar of Arabic quite nicely. I remember how to conjugate in first, second, and third person masculine and feminine singular and plural, and even that odd Arabic anomaly, the dual. I remember about broken plurals. I could even probably produce a decent version of the chart with the ten verbal forms. But I am ashamed to confess that I avoid telling Arab people that I speak Arabic. There was the Egyptian at our favorite kebab shop in Saluzzo, and those nice young men we saw every day in the park in Florence, and the Tunisian woman I spent half an hour conversing with in Italian while we waited our turn at the immigration office in Florence. I just can’t bring myself to confess that I studied Arabic, because after the thrill of surprise and delight will come the moment when I must demonstrate that I am pitifully and absolutely incompetent at speaking. And I can’t understand anything anymore either.