Sunday, February 20, 2005

CleanFlicks Syria

American movies and television programs shown throughout most of the Middle East are edited for content (usually sexual content). The censors couldn’t care less about violence or profanity (though they usually clean up the latter in the Arabic subtitles), but anything remotely sexual has to go.

We have three satellite channels that broadcast English-language programming, all of them originating from the United Arab Emirates. The selection of shows varies from non-stop movies (on MBC 2) to sitcoms (Friends, Seinfeld, and a few obsolete programs that America doesn’t show anymore), talk shows (Oprah, The View), and dramas (24, ER) on MBC 4 and OneTV. We recently enjoyed watching Shakespeare in Love – originally rated R for sexuality, in a purely PG format, courtesy of MBC 2’s censors.

But we’ve also noticed a difference in standards between the three channels. MBC 2 and MBC 4 allow a limited amount of kissing. The kiss at the end of You’ve Got Mail was shown, but shortened. They also allowed a couple of pecks to slip by on Titanic. But on OneTV, the standards are stricter. We saw parts of A Walk in the Clouds and couldn’t believe how much they edited it. Even for potentially small kisses, the two main characters’ heads weren’t allowed to come within six inches of each other! Except – we did notice that later in the movie, after the two characters had gotten married, they were allowed a greater degree of familiarity.

The methods for cutting such indiscretions from the film vary. MBC 2 usually puts the preceding or following scene in slow motion so as not to disturb the soundtrack. Sometimes, they focus on a different part of the frame for the duration (in You’ve Got Mail, it was the dog at Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s feet). OneTV, on the other hand, favors a clean cut. They don’t seem to care about the soundtrack at all and just jump to the next scene unceremoniously.

Now, if they could only edit out the violence…

Monday, February 14, 2005

English muffins and cottage cheese

You can buy almost anything these days in Damascus - Quaker Oatmeal, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Ragu spaghetti sauce. But, in keeping with the way Syria does things, it seems like there's always something not quite right. The oatmeal comes in tiny tins that cost as much as a big carton would in America. The peanut butter cups are only available at one store in the whole city. When you can find spaghetti sauce, the price sticker is still in Lebanese Lira, betraying its hasty "importation" by a Beirut-to-Damascus taxi driver with extra trunk space. And so on.

But there are some things that are simply nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, since I've been pregnant, those are the things my tastebuds and tummy have chosen to crave. English muffins lightly toasted and heavily buttered. Creamy pesto salad dressing and mizithra cheese from The Old Spaghetti Factory. Cottage cheese on rusks. Black olives. Pineapple and rice cakes. And most of all: nachos! I almost wept at the thought, especially knowing I wouldn't be able to get them.

Then one afternoon, some friends came over to study with Jeremy. One of them brought over the ingredients to make fattoush, a Syrian/Lebanese salad. I've had fattoush many times since being here, and I've always liked it, but after one taste I couldn't get enough. The next day was Friday - we have church and don't go shopping on Fridays since it's the Sabbath - and I almost died for want of fattoush.

First thing the next morning, we went out and got the ingredients at the produce stand down the street. I made the salad with great care, soaking all the vegetables in bleach solution and tailoring the ratio of ingredients to my taste. And it was absolutely delicious! I ate probably 3/4 of the whole salad bowl (Jeremy got the rest). It was so yummy.

So now I crave fattoush, which is much more convenient for me. There are tons of recipes for it online, but the one I like to make is this one:

a bunch of chopped Romaine lettuce
one medium onion, diced
two or three cucumbers, sliced into semicircles
one tomato, diced
fresh parsley, chopped
fresh mint, chopped
thyme (or za'atar if you can get it)

1/3 - 1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 or 2 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and pepper

Combine the salad stuff; mix the dressing ingredients together and pour over salad. Right before you eat it, toss in toasted pita bread (broken into bite-sized pieces). This soaks up some of the dressing and makes the salad unique.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Hafez Al-Assad - Over the Rainbow

A Thousand Words Posted by Hello

On Being Childless in Syria

Here in Syria, life revolves around the family. You don't move out of the house until you get married, and even then, you probably just move upstairs. You might be as close to your cousins as you are to your own brothers and sisters. And in the evenings, it's not uncommon to see whole families out shopping together, even down to the youngest babe-in-arms.

In a place where married couples usually have a baby within a year, it's often awkward for my husband and me to explain our situation. We've been married for over three years and have yet to produce any offspring. To the Syrians, such a thing is nigh inexplicable. What's more, the topic is not so off-limits like it is in America. Questions about your personal life that would be considered very rude in the States are fair game here.

So for the last seven months, since being in Syria, we've experienced the following conversation time and time again with new acquaintances, co-workers, students, taxi drivers, and storekeepers:

STRANGER (to Jeremy, indicating me): So, is this your sister?
JEREMY: No, she's my wife.
STRANGER: Oh, you're married, how wonderful! Do you have any children?
JEREMY (sighing): No, not yet.
STRANGER (clearly expecting an answer of 'less than a year'): Oh, well how long have you been married?
JEREMY: A little over three years.
STRANGER (indignant): Why don't you want children???

Well, when I finally did get pregnant, I hoped we could at last gain favor in these people's eyes. My husband and I debated the wisdom of telling people that we were expecting so early in the pregnancy. But in Syria, the temptation to finally be able to say that YES, we do want children, and in fact, she's pregnant right NOW, was just too much to overcome. We found ourselves sharing the news with friends, local storekeepers, and students, just to lift the sanctions they had placed on us for our previous state of childlessness. What's amazing to me is how quickly they forgive us, and how genuinely happy they are for us. Syria is not the best place to be married and childless, but I think it's going to be a wonderful place to be pregnant.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

home away from home

Here's the personal statement I wrote for my law school application. Nothing much, but it was fun to choose some stories to tell:

The proposal came after a game of Frisbee on the day before my 20th birthday in October 2001. We managed to squeeze in our wedding over Thanksgiving weekend in November. In December, I graduated from college. In January 2002, my new husband and I packed up our wedding gifts – as many as would fit, into suitcases; the rest, into storage boxes – and moved to Moscow, Russia. I looked forward to a new life with my new husband, even as I left behind any semblance of the life I had known.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had hired my husband for a year-long contract position as a Russian linguist, and I was suddenly transformed into a trailing government spouse. At the time, I spoke hardly a word of Russian and could only barely make my way through reading the alphabet. We arrived on the coldest day of the year – it hurt to breathe – and settled into our sterile studio apartment on the 9th floor of one apartment building among many, about two kilometers away from the Kremlin. On the streets, blending in as I did with my Slavic features and fuzzy shapka hat, surly babushkas took me for a native and accosted me in rough Russian, demanding directions to the nearest metro station or asking when I expected the next bus. I struggled to somehow communicate that not only did I not know the answer to their questions, but that I lacked the language ability to tell them even if I did – but they usually turned away in exasperation before I got very far. In that land of bleak winter days, fierce pessimism, and an entirely unfamiliar language, I felt as if it wasn’t possible to be any farther from home.

Our local church congregation of Russians took pity on me and made me an assistant to the girls’ youth group leader. Sasha spoke English very well and had even lived in Salt Lake City for a while. However, this arrangement soon fell through when Sasha stopped coming to church. After four months in the country, I suddenly found myself responsible for running meetings and teaching lessons to these young women – in Russian. The group of six young Russian women took it all in stride, generously assuming there was a real, coherent message behind my lessons delivered in halting, half-mangled Russian weighed down by cumbersome religious vocabulary. With their help, however, I had soon gained impeccable pronunciation and passable grammar.

In the meantime I started work as a private English tutor, and crammed into dank metro cars in the bowels of the city with hundreds of other commuting Russians to visit my students around the city each afternoon. Before long, I could direct the babushkas to the nearest metro station and complain just as long and loud about how the buses never ran on time.

A summer vacation trip took my husband and me to Berlin, Germany. One evening, after a long day of sightseeing, I went to what seemed like every internet café in the city. I was on a deadline for the latest issue of the embassy newsletter, of which I was the editor. Not one of the internet cafés had the particular software I needed. Finally, in a remote corner of the city, I walked into a smoke-filled coffee shop that had a few computers in the corner. Wearily, I prepared to ask the arch-looking girl behind the counter in rusty German if they had what I needed. Somehow, the Russian words found their way to my tongue quicker than the German, and I had spat out half the sentence before correcting myself.

The girl’s eyes lit up. “Viy govoritye po russki?” she inquired rapidly, and without waiting for an answer began chatting happily with me in her native tongue. Relief washed over my exhausted soul. Here was someone I could talk to! Here was something familiar! I had never felt so close to home.

Now we live in Damascus, Syria, a place as different from Moscow, Russia as it is from my home in Portland, Oregon. It’s a place where everything – ice cream, bread, corn flakes, and soap – is sold by the kilo. It’s also a place full of surprises: the first time we bought facial tissues, I opened the box and was shocked to find a half-mangled toothbrush inside. This time, I’m the wife of a Fulbright scholar, since released from his government service. By the time we return to the U.S. this summer, we will have spent the majority of our married life living overseas. My friends write me emails from the U.S., talking about their lawnmowers and pet cats, while I search the city for a store that sells tortilla chips (no store does) and try to figure out ways to dress and act that will make me invisible to Arab men and their taunting (it’s not possible).

I found a job teaching English courses at an organization called Amideast. My students are Syrian teenagers. For some of them, I’m the only American they’ve ever met. They speak heatedly about their frustration with their image in the western world. They struggle to overcome their forced guilt-by-ethnic-association with radical Muslim or Arab militant groups. In class, when discussing the recent fighting in Fallujah that temporarily favored the insurgents, one of my students slipped and said that “we were beating the Americans.” Anass quickly corrected himself and everybody was able to laugh about his mistake, but it seemed to strike at a common undercurrent of confusion.

Anass certainly isn’t radical – he’s a normal, educated Syrian teenager. He works hard at his English studies and listens to Metallica more than my own brothers ever did. One day he brought his guitar to class. In exchange for letting him leave early to go to a rehearsal, I had him play us a few songs. His first choice was a classic, morose song by the Lebanese civil war icon Fairouz. The students clapped their hands to the familiar rhythm and even sang along. As the song came to an end, they begged for another. This time, I heard not the horse-hoof clip-clop rhythm of a Middle Eastern song, but the familiar chord progression of the opening strains of the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” Anass knew the English lyrics by heart, and sang them with an intensity that seemed to indicate he even knew the meaning behind them. At the chorus, the whole class joined in the singing, and I found myself surrounded by Syrian teenagers singing a classic American song, in what was to them a foreign language, and doing it better than I ever could.

Home had never felt like this before.