Friday, May 13, 2005
Being the foreigners
The Convent at Seidnayya
My little brother and I went to the Christian village Seidnayya earlier this spring. There’s a big convent on a hill, built kind of like a fortress. The nuns there generally let visitors have the run of the place. We had fun exploring while trying not to go anywhere we shouldn’t. The convent is like a maze, with staircases to random levels that don’t connect and courtyards that are visible but seemingly inaccessible. Everything is well maintained and kept very clean. From the top level, if you can find it, there are views over the whole valley north of Damascus, as well as the town stretching out before you on the steep hill down to the valley floor.
When we were finished exploring, I decided to visit the restroom before the 45-minute trip back into Damascus. I asked Steven to hold my purse for me while I went. He waited patiently out in the courtyard, which was deserted at the time.
I’m sure I was gone for no more than two or three minutes. But when I came out, I couldn’t even see Steven. Instead, I saw a large swarm of young Syrian schoolchildren, randomly shouting out standard phrases in English like "Where are you from?" and "What is your name?" to an unknown target. Looking closer, into the center of the mob, I saw that the target was my brother! He was slowly being backed into a corner by the overeager schoolchildren. They were obviously excited to talk to a foreigner, but Steven was having trouble fielding all their questions at once. It was a hilarious sight. As I watched, one young boy took over the role of designated spokesman. The others started shouting their questions to him in Arabic and he did his best to translate them into English and ask "the foreigner" (ajnabi).
I made my way through the mob and rescued Steven. I spoke in Arabic to the children, but that just excited their curiosity even more. A foreigner is one thing, but a foreigner speaking Arabic? They’d never seen anything like it. After ascertaining through several questions that I was indeed a foreigner...
THEM: Where are you from?
THEM: Yeah, but where are you really from?
ME: Um, America.
THEM: Yeah, but where is your dad from?
THEM: No, but what is your blood? (Arabs love this question)
THEM (completely mystified): Then how do you speak Arabic???
...they were finally able to get answers to all their eager questions. Their curiosity satisfied, they left Steven and me alone. I was impressed with how much they wanted to speak English. And for how young they were, their English wasn’t half-bad.