Success (and a little embarrassment) at the Turkish Bath

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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.… Read more

Am I Guilty of Collaboration with the Regime?

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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.… Read more

The Dreamers of the Day

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?… Read more

An Expert Perspective on Current Events in the Middle East

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.… Read more

The Syria Files: Secret Rebel at the Embassy

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.… Read more

Alf Leyla wa- Leyla

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.… Read more