On Sex

Is it the case where sexuality and its expression are repressed that there is an atmosphere of highly sexualised tension /contradiction around interactions in public? Here, some young covered Muslim women wear headscarves but unnervingly skin-tight (and sometimes semi transparent) clothes, fancy, visible underwear and highheeled shoes or boots. In the souk leading to the central Umayyad Mosque underwear shops sell titillating, nipple accentuating gear which women in Burkahs buy. As a foreign woman it seems to be assumed that I am so sexually liberal that I would get into a car with strange men. The fact that men commonly stare inappropriately and comment or call, I am told, is not because I am a foreigner though. Our nicab-wearing tutor for example, tells me that men often make lewd referrals to what she is hiding.

I am told that taxi drivers take any kind of eye contact as a form of sexual availability and would any girl be so publicly brazen as to sit in the front alone she should expect to be molested (I have only done this twice, both for logistical reasons and both times this was confirmed though I am determined to believe this would not always be the case)

The Holy Land

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Jordan seemed to us more conservative than Syria with more English speaking folk.

We had the privilege of spending time drinking glasses of sugar and tea in the company of a Bedouin police sergeant, which was interesting, one of the hitchhikers we picked up in our hired car – a common practice and one which we’d no doubt have benefitted more from if we had better Arabic.

Did a bit more thinking about the complex situation for women in the middle east. It’s a complicated and I have half forgotten to think about it sometimes. I get frustrated about the way I am looked at or talked to (or not talked to as the case may be) sometimes but forget how free I am in comparison to other women. I was reminded by a woman we shared a taxi with from Amman to Damascus: 38 yrs old and leaving her husband who was according to her limited English, ‘an angry man’, and four young children. She was on her way back to Lattakia in the north of Syria to get her brother’s permission to fight for her children as her husband had said she couldn’t stay with them. Was a very upsetting conversation especially as there was little I could do other than touch her arm in solidarity and hope not to offend. I want to explore these issues further. After all, it was part of what I’d said I’d try to learn about here.

Dead sea more than lived up to all my long held expectations. Could see Israel (or whatever name is better to call it – I am unsure how to stay out of the politics) just a short swim away. Got off the track to find a place where I could swim bikinied without too much hassle way better than the ‘public’ beach area we saw further down the road later.

Petra blew our minds -simply.

Our second day in we walked and walked for over 12 hours. Awesome and not in a cliched sense.

Really an amazing place. We got away from some of the main trails to where some of the Bedouin still live illegally (they were all kicked out in the 1980s to make way for tourism). There’s a story for another time.

Back to Reality

Been back in Syria only a few weeks before we decided that to maintain our sanity we had to leave the job

We have left and we decided (after much deliberation) to give it a bit longer here, to really make a go of learning Arabic, to try to understand this place a bit. I have got a job in a language school which will sponsor us to be here and we’re going for a much needed holiday in Jordan.

Romance Dies (well and truly)


In October I had food poisoning after food poisoning and found out I had some abnormal cells in my cervix following a routine examination. The ‘best’ doctors here wanted to cut out a section of my cervix as well as other things. No one here is qualified to do it, they said. I would have to go to Lebanon or England, they said. Words like ‘hysterectomy’ were mentioned and I had truly had enough. One doctor emphatically advised immediate impregnation(?) as at 33 (then) it was really my last chance. After that, she said, they could cut it out.

Instead I went home and had a very simple routine biopsy in 20 minutes and waited for the results for a few weeks then came back. I was more home sick than ever after this whole affair and visiting my old school in Brum made it so much worse. I realised how much I missed the life and challenging nature of the students there.

There’s so much we take for granted and (if you’re anything like me) criticise; like the national health system and education but seeing how things are in other places makes you realise how good we really do have it in the UK.

I thought I was seasoned traveller and could get used to a lot. Maybe I’m just tired and fed up of not being able to eat anything. ‘RICE WITHOUT GHEE?!’ is the usually incredulous response I get in Arabic from people when I ask them for food without dairy. Through an interpreter the chef in the school canteen told me that it was not possible to cook rice without butter. That there was only one kind of rice you could cook without ghee but that had to be imported from Italy.

As always, it’s the people, though that have saved the situation We have met a few really great people who have made a huge difference to our experience here.

Outside of work

Right now, this is just the place we live and the place move within. A certain resignation, which perhaps stems from an inability to live with the crippling frustration at not being able to get anything achieved at anything like a normal pace, seems to colour our routines. And like all new school term participants we live with the phenomenon of the blocked pipe of time, which spurts and spits. In short, we are exhausted but know that things will settle down.

New dusty, spread city which begins to fit, piece by piece together, new sounds, which wake us in the night, disturbing, siren-esq ; new home, which settles under a fresh layer of yellow-brown dust each day while we work, new language which becomes familiar like a face caught in a crowd at times now – lit on a homeward bound bus, caught in a telephone conversation

School (some venting about pedagogy and the like)

There is a wind now. Constantly. At work our mood is torn between resolution and despair in between the hope or certainty that things will improve. We are moving within a ridiculous education system which is nothing to do with real learning and everything to do with memorising the necessary irrelevant facts to pass the weekly and periodic tests. It’s not just a cliche to say it is soul destroying to teach in a way that limits perspectives rather than opening them. Everyday we have to compromise something of ourselves and it feels like destruction. I constantly find ways to sneak in real learning but this is difficult when one is criticised for doing group work and any interactive learning. I have to hope the supervisor isn’t listening outside when I’m telling students that their interpretation of this symbol or other in Jane Eire or another of the classics we ‘teach’ is valid, though of course they should write X in the exam. I am supposed to stick to the script, which, by the way, does not allow for interpretation or imagination or creative thinking of any kind, or Jews. Yes, you read it right – Jews.

One class reader I am covering with a class has the word blanked out in every copy with white stickers along with any mention of any catastrophic event that might have involved them. How are you supposed to deal with a situation so politically laden as that?

I have always tried to teach students, in the past, that studying English is the most important subject (in an English language curriculum) in that you learn skills rather than just information: you learn thinking skills. This is not the case here. Thinking is actively discouraged. Teacher centred learning where interactive learning is a no no.

I believe, despite recent experiences, that children and young people are generally lovely. Of course individually this is true. Take a group of 36 teenagers who have everything and know the value of nothing’ (a recent grade ten essay title which students were required to write to a particular formula) and who have been sitting in their same individual rows on their same wooden chairs staring at the same smudged chalkboard for all nine periods of the day after having had home tutors the previous night who coach them on everything they need to pass their exams and who think you work for them directly in the same way as do their maids and their drivers, however, and a person might feel differently. But, they are still young people and we are building relationships with them.

The Honeymoon Ends


I should tell you about the dust in September.

Plastic pegs crack in the heat

Dust dries the hands,

hot feet in nights of strange calls,

crisps hanging clothes and hovers

like anticipation round routines.

Cool mornings now with warm breeze bringing dust,

dust, dust.

Sandy coloured blocks of homes cluster on hills surrounding this oasis

of contrasts and mirages

Honeymoon Reflections

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There is a present silence of birds as they glide across the deepening dusk.

The sounds from this terrace of the city below, the cars honking in the distance, the occasional snatch of chatter, clatter of pans, patter and pop of fireworks and then the call. From here it begins in the middle distance, a single voice, a note long then bending in and out across the rooftops and spires and satellite domes. The houses look like a bag of concrete dominos dropped by some giant the way they sit on top of each other. Another voice follows the first, like an answer, and soon we are surrounded with a clamour of calling. The sky is matt and dense and changing- dirty pink at this hour above the city then grey and dark blue. A range of white and yellow lights are shining from windows before the luminous green of the first spire lights, and soon after the stilted concrete water tower that sits like a nipple on top of the hill of houses blends into charcoal. We have been sitting on this terrace in the evenings, or lying on the swing seat to see the night in. the lights from these houses on the hill looked like a hanging blanket of fairylights glittering off some great building the night we drove from the airport. It’s nice that we have ended up living on that glittering hill. The air is a bit fresher and cooler here than downtown.

Settling into the apartment, we have spent an awful lot of time cleaning and rearranging in order to make it our home. But at one point, having spent the afternoon washing down the terraces we found ourselves carefully squeegying the table football. We had to face the fact that we were, in fact, procrastinating. The initial workload is mammoth. Though we have already completed a week of work we wont start teaching until Sunday. By then we need to have mastered the course for each group and planned three weeks worth of lessons to hand in. we are both quite excited, though, and ready to get stuck in.  Plus, everyone at work has been unnervingly helpful and willing to give their time or resources.

It seems to be the thing here. So many people offer their help. On Thursday afternoon last week we decided to do a big shopping trip to get everything we needed for the apartment. We didn’t know how well the services, small minibuses which operate like buses, would serve our purpose but we gave it a crack. The driver of the first service we asked told us half way there that he wasn’t actually going where we wanted but he was going to take us anyway when he had dropped everyone else off (or at least, that’s what we worked out he said). In return he wanted only for to be friend’ . Coming home late that night we had similar issues as service drivers kept nodding their consent then dropping us at another service stop which would be more appropriate. It was a crazy situation and so busy. 11pm, the night before Eid and all the shops we still open and the streets and roads were packed. Earlier in the evening when we were eating takeout in some narrow street of the old town, sat on a step outside someone’s house we were surprised that a man came out and, in English, told us that his wife would like to invite us to join them for tea.  We had a fun time with all the family and, like everyone else, they offered us their number and any help should we need it.

After weeks of the heat, the buildings are chalk-grey and so is the skin, and the floor and every surface and hair and eyes and nose are full of grit.  And the birds are flying away.

I never thought I’be so grateful when I hear a song that reminds me of home.

Meeting Damascus

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I feel like a bride of an arranged marriage. It is our wedding night and the exhaustion of the preparations and my senses are overwhelming me. And here we are, this new suitor and I, together, discovering cautiously. I am confronted now with this unknown, who I have committed to though I don’t yet know what that means. We will spend this next phase of our life together. It could mean anything.

Passive, I sit here in the back of this taxi, a warm smoky breeze picking up my hair.  The prayer calls, alluring, from the speakers, nostalgic and alien.  Lights spin passed. All kinds of lights: hanging lights from apartment balconies, flashing adorned trees, street lights, neon lights, lit signs in strange and beautiful letting flickering through passing fence slats or palm leaves. All familiar somehow. All new.

I am excited and have found it hard to hide the open wonder of my curiosity this evening at times and, at times, have looked with sideways surreptitious glances at this groom. Here are the joys. Here are the potential heartaches. We walked through Old Damascus in the heat of the late evening of late Ramadan.  Along narrow walled streets of leaning buildings and hanging vines, shops fronts of tiny pots and sweet smelling spices and coloured glass and carved wood and woven carpets and cloth. We walked and I chattered.  This is what we’re doing now. This is where we are. This place and us begin this journey here and walk it together through some unknown path. Tonight we will fall exhausted and tomorrow we’ll begin this marriage and I will begin to discover the ways of my new betrothed.

I make little impact on this new strange spouse yet around me his people stare. Stare at my hair, stare at my eyes, call me in. Leaving BabTouma, feeling faint I clung on watching the world pushed passed in what seemed like a sea of headscarves and ice cream with bubbles from the bubble machine vendors swimming and spinning iridescent through and over us all, popping on arms quietly or shrinking up to the curved roof of this chocked street.