Experience Syria - Cultural Immersion in the Arab World

Posted by Angélique Vassout • Tuesday, March 23. 2010 • Category: People and Places
Going abroad as a part of the curriculum has become more and more common and is nowadays a key distinguishing factor in your CV. Most European students choose to stay inside Europe thanks to the Erasmus programme or go to North America, but others prefer to leave the beaten track and travel to more challenging parts of the world, in order to discover a new way of life, learn a foreign language, and experience by themselves what global diversity is.

Ummayad Mosque - "The Grand Mosque of Damascus"

But it would be a mistake to consider that the choice of going abroad is sufficient in itself and to underestimate the consequences of this choice. Do you want to learn the local language or not? Will you stay for one month or one year, so that you can have the time to get to know the society on a deeper level? Should you live with foreign roommates or in a local family, for a complete social and linguistic immersion? Will you prefer living in a traditional area or a modern one, working at the embassy or in a local NGO, studying in a centre for foreigners or at a local school, etc. All these decisions make that two people going abroad to the same country will have two completely different experiences.

Breakfast Syrian Style
For French people, going to the Near East may seem quite easy, as a lot of people in Lebanon, for example, can speak French and because they are assisted by the IFPO (French Institute for the Near East) in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

However, this facility can be a trap and make you encapsulate yourself in the enclosing environment of expatriates. It is very difficult to find a good equilibrium between the expatriate way of life, which also provides advantages like a flat with running water and diverse restaurants, and the integration inside the local society. You have to be careful not to miss the beauty and the peculiarities of your host country.

Culture in Syria is everywhere. If you take a taxi, a microbus or go to a shop in the morning, you inevitably hear a song of Fairuz, the Lebanese singer, which every Syrian knows by heart.

From the morning to the evening, you find the culture inside the food – fatoush, kebab, chich taouk, laban bil lahmeh, chawarma, halawiyat, ... - served with a “shaï” or an Arabic coffee.

During the day, you will walk in the souks, buy some shawl or soap from Aleppo flavoured with jasmine, take a break in the shade of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. In the evening, you will go with friends spend some time on the hill “Jebel Qassiun”, smoking a water pipe “toufataïn” (two apples), watching the green lights of the minarets all over the city in the night and listening to the hundreds of calls to prayer that emerge at the same time.

Always a smile on their faces
In the late evening you will maybe experience the living culture of dancing (dabkeh) and playing music (oud and derbakeh) with some Syrian friends, and their incredible talent for improvisation.

As transport costs are relatively low, you also will probably travel every other weekend inside the country or to the countries around, on the footsteps of the many historical civilisations that followed each other during the last millenniums, or to discover the life of the Bedouin in the desert.

In Syria, despite the legendary hospitality of the Syrians, it is not always easy to connect and integrate with the local population, as only very few Syrian people, who are usually linked to the world of the foreign expatriates, can speak English or French.

Learning the Arabic language is an essential step to interact with people and to understand the beauty of the culture, the strength of popular traditions, and the complexity of social relations in the society. Otherwise, you will be considered a tourist every time you take a taxi or want to buy something in the souks.

Especially if you want to experience a true cultural exchange, it is strongly recommended to make the first step by learning at least a few words of the local language.

Everybody arrives in a country with a goal, private or professional, and searches for what one wants to find. If you leave your familiar cultural environment, the best way to discover our planet’s diversity will be to take the informed decisions necessary generate realistic opportunities for your individual cultural immersion.

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