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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Marhaban from the Middle East! - Damascus, Syria

Marhaban from the Middle East!

I hope everyone is having a GREAT summer! I have been dying to continue to stalk the McDermott Network here in Damascus, but unfortunately I have problems accessing the EMPSN on any computer other than my non-Middle Eastern-compatible Mac. Either way, it is good to feel like a full-time McDermott again, and it is very safe to say I miss the family very much.

I cannot begin to describe the wonders of the city of Damascus. This is, indeed, the oldest inhabited capital in the world, and as such there is so much to see! I am very fortunate to have some family members that are more than willing to take me around the city to show me the sites. There is no way that a two month stay will do this city justice, but I am happy to say that I have been to many of the stereotypical tourist sites along with many hidden treasures in Damascus.

I don’t even know where to begin. The city of Damascus is split into many different sections, but the one most historically rich and most interesting is known as “Old Damascus.” As hinted by the name, this is where the old villas, markets, mosques, etc. are located. Damascus is home to the oldest hotel in the world! It is two stories high with beautiful arches carved over three thousand years ago! Also, in the old city lie the tombs of John the Baptist and the daughter of the Muslim caliph Ali, both in two exquisite mosques (the former in the famous Omayyid). In the Omayyid mosque, I saw the first sun calendar in the world, the location Muslims believe St. George re-appears, and also the location many people believe Jesus will return. My favorite spot in the old city and one of my favorite parts of all Damascus would have to be Hamadiyya, the famous market strip full of venders selling spices, jewelry, clothes, home d├ęcor, and food, and home of the famous Arabic ice cream (vanilla ice cream with pistachio) that they compact with a special machine until it forms a solid that you can literally hold in your hand as a single piece and bite into! My roommate tells me you cannot eat ice cream with your hands, but here it would be totally possible.

The best thing about Damascus is the abundance of places to just walk around and enjoy the culture. The people are extremely friendly and willing to help (there is no way I could have figured out how to use the bus otherwise!), and the food is both abundant (at least lunchtime is supper, so you can walk off the five hundred pounds of food that you definitely didn’t need) and yummy! Also, the nightlife here is wonderful! But it has been rather exhausting: Arabs like to go out starting at 1:30 a.m. and often don’t get in until 4:30/5 am!! Also, arguille smoke (hubble bubble?) and cigarette smoke have been following me everywhere I go :/.

One amazing weekend trip that I must write about was my two and a half day excursion to Jordan. My family and I took a taxi to the capital, where we stayed with my mom’s ammay (aunt from father’s side) for one night. We then woke up early the next morning to take a tour bus that took us around some of the most famous sites in the country. We first stopped at the religious site where Moses supposedly turned rocks into wells; you can still see and drink from the wells still there today! We then went to the main tourist spot in Jordan: Petra. Petra is an old city from the Byzantine Empire that spans 45 kilometers and has some of the most astonishing ancient architecture in the world. The site has, in fact, been recently named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World! It was very beautiful, but the only problem is that we only had about four hours and the site is so spread out that we were only able to see one of the main doors and a few tombs. After Petra, we went deep into the desert to a popular site known as Wadi Rum. Here we experienced the sand dunes of the arid Middle East; we rock-climbed, saw some quick sand, watched the sunset, and had a mini Bedouin style dance party to end the night! We then drove back to Amman, and after staying the night our family took us to see the city itself. Amman is quite different in that the entire city is literally built on a mountain, so you see these houses built on the edge of cliffs! It was a really interesting and beautiful place to see. I am hoping to also take a trip to Lebanon (hopefully the rebels will stop fighting in the South and hopefully the Syrians will secure the border and hopefully I will get another VISA so I can get there!), and North Syria to see Palmera and go to the beach!

I have, of course, been studying the Arabic language as well. Let me tell you, Arabic is one heck of a trip. Vowels aren’t written half of the time, the alphabet is completely different than what we are used to, all writing goes right to left, and worst of all the written language I am learning is not spoken ANYWHERE except the news and in official government documents. If you walk in the streets you will hear a completely different Arabic than that taught in my classroom. Fortunately, my upbringing, my current living situation with an Arabic family, and being forced to find my way around the city all have forced me to learn the local dialect. I do feel that both my formal Arabic and my daily Arabic have improved ten-fold since I have been here, and I only wish I could stay longer to really get it down.

Summary: I miss you guys, but Damascus rocks!