Teaching in Syria

The Basics: I taught English from August to October 2008 in Aleppo, a city of four million people located in northern Syria. It was great to live in such a scenic place while interacting with some of the most hospitable people on earth. Aleppo is famous for its Levantine Arabic food, imposing citadel, and old-Arabia souks. 

Photo Gallery - Updated December 2008

October 26 | Aleppo, Syria

I'm flying to Dubai tonight and then catching an onward flight to Yemen tomorrow. I'll be staying in Yemen for over three weeks and then heading back to the US. I'm really looking forward to meeting the famously hospitable Yemeni people and practicing my Arabic. I hope the recent flooding there doesn't disrupt my trip too much. I will definitely miss Syria and all the friends that I've met here. 

October 8 | Aleppo, Syria

Things continue to go well here in Syria and I’m really enjoying the long summer and sun. Temperatures are still warm and I went swimming with some friends last
week in the Mediterranean. I’m continuing to teach English and I’ve been doing a lot more private, one-on-one English lessons rather than group classes. I’ve become popular through word-of-mouth and I’ve had to turn down many eager students who crave lessons with a native speaker. I don’t want to get too busy teaching and miss having free time to be with my great friends and do some sightseeing. 

The last few weeks have been especially interesting because it was the holy month of Ramadan, immediately followed by a three day holiday called Eid. During Ramadan, Muslims fast in the daylight hours and then have a huge breakfast called If’tar around sunset when the fourth call to prayer is heard blaring from the loudspeakers on the mosques’ minarets. I was privileged to be invited into a few of my friends’ houses for a traditional If’tar meal on several occasions. 

The rush to get to the breakfast table on time causes a maddening buzz of traffic and activity in the minutes before the meal is scheduled to start. I found this pre-breakfast frenzy fascinating and certainly entertaining. Taxis and buses drive faster, honk more, and cut each other off just for the sake of not being late to the family meal. The Marouk bread peddlers on the sidewalks begin selling faster than you can imagine, as both the customers and the seller is trying to make as many exchanges as possible before they make a quick dash into their home and join their family for breakfast. Once everyone has made it safely home, the family is seated, and the Imam’s call to prayer can be heard, the meal begins by first eating dates and drinking a cup of Sous, a strongly bitter drink made from dates. The main dishes are delicious and large. Marouk is baked bread with a sugary glaze and is served along with tea as the customary dessert. 

When I wasn’t having Ramadan breakfast with my friends, I took advantage of the deserted streets and went bike riding on my new bike that I’ve had for a couple weeks now. 

The eve of Eid was by far the busiest and most chaotic that I’ve ever seen this city. EVERYONE was out in the streets shopping, eating, and many just present to be a part of the buzz. Eid is celebrated by visiting family relatives and traveling to the coast or mountains if you have the means. I was lucky to be in Syria during these holidays to experience the amazing food and understand the Muslim customs. My time in Aleppo is coming to an end and I’m setting my sights on Yemen and a return back to the USA in mid-November. I will be sad to leave because I have made so many nice friends here in just three months. I tell them that I will return one day “in sha Allah,” the most common phrase in Arabic that means “god willing”. 

August 24 | Aleppo, Syria

I've stayed busy the last few weeks with my English classes and weekend trips. I visited a beautiful beach on the Mediterranean Sea near the mountain town of Kasab. A three hour bus ride is all it takes to reach the sea and escape the noise, dust, and heat of Aleppo. 

I was invited by one of my students to spend a day hiking with her uncle and cousin in the mountains near Darkoush. We underestimated the length of the hike, but fortunately we were able to get water from local farmers. We were welcomed
into the house with "Ahlan wa Sahlan," and as always in the Arab world, were asked to stay longer and relax with tea. Our hosts were sorry to see us leave so quickly, but we still had some distance cover. We came across a spring fed river that allowed for lush green vegetation contrasting greatly with the dry mountains. We found a patch of fig and pomegranate trees and proceeded to have one of the healthiest and most delicious snacks ever. Nothing can beat the taste of fresh fruit, especially when such an "exotic" fruit is free. My friends couldn't believe me when I said that one pomegranate costs more than $1 in the USA. In the evening we prepared a fish BBQ next to the river where the rest of the family had arrived by car. The fish was cooked in a salt pit with coals placed on top –a delicacy. 

Last weekend I traveled with the owner of my school to Latakia using the ultra modern Aleppo-Latakia train service. The train was so nice, new, and clean that when I stepped aboard I felt that I had been transported to some far away land. The Sheraton Hotel and that train have to be the two nicest things in this country. Syrians travel to Latakia to go swimming in the sea, and the first beach we visited was the filthiest beach I've ever seen. People have not learned here that if you want to keep something beautifully you must clean up after yourself. Nevertheless, there were a lot of people having a great time playing in the water, smoking hookah, drinking tea, and dancing to blaring Arabic music. These vacationers are proof that you don't need much to be happy and enjoy life. Even the hijab-covered women were playing ball, swimming in the water, smoking cigarettes, and laughing. My friend explained to me that this Latakia beach is like a haven where people from the super conservative cities like Aleppo can come and be more open and free. They even sell beer. 

The next day we met up with a group of European couchsurfers and headed to a secluded beach one hour north of Latakia. The water was a beautiful color from the white rock bottom and the fact that the beach is off-the-beaten-track meant that there were fewer people and thankfully less litter on the beach. In the evening we headed to the mountain getaway Slomfeh, where younger Syrians go to party, eat, and enjoy the cool mountain air. The most exciting part of the day, however, was the three hour bus ride back to Aleppo. The partygoers on the bus still had too much energy and danced to blaring Arabic the entire way back to Aleppo with the driver acting as the DJ. Even hijab-covered women started dancing with the men which my friend tells me is totally taboo and unacceptable in the Syrian society. I guess they figured that what happens on the bus stays on the bus. 

August 3 | Aleppo, Syria

After traveling for five days on a bus, it was a relief to arrive in the great city of Aleppo. The city is just as spectacular, smelly, and busy as when I was here last October. I realized why I had been longing to come back when I stepped into a

restaurant and had a delectable Arabic meal for $1. The food here is so rich and cheap and I'm now convinced that I should open a Arabic restaurant in the US. The
hospitality here is so amazing that when I walk into a store everybody inside stops their business and welcomes me to Syria. No joke! This happens everywhere I go –in the buses and taxis, walking down the sidewalk, and in all the stores, restaurants, and internet cafes. The Syrians are so intent on improving their inaccurate reputation as bad people that they find it their duty to impress travelers with overwhelming kindness. Sure, they are nice to each other, but as an American I receive special status. Hey, I'm not complaining! 

I have begun teaching conversational English classes. This is a new one for me and I find it very challenging. I am currently teaching two separate classes with about eight girls in each class. It is the first time that the students have ever spoken to a native English speaker, so I guess they are probably just as intimidated as I am. Before the classes began I had the false assumption that just because I could speak English I would have no problem teaching it. Thankfully, the lesson plans I have been using from the internet are working pretty well and now that I know more about the students I will be able to improve the dialogue in each class. My mother and her 27 years of experience as a teacher have come in handy as well. 

For the first few days I stayed at either Jamal’s or Mustafa’s apartment. Jamal is the owner of the English school and Mustafa is a couchsurfing.com friend who I stayed with last year. I have now moved into to the extra room at the English school. I am very comfortable here with access to my own kitchen and bathroom. The institute is located in a well-kept, affluent area of Aleppo near the University. There are many nice shops, restaurants, and internet cafes nearby, and almost everybody in this district called "Foorkan" can speak some English. I just have to get used to the Syrian schedule of staying awake until 4:00 in the morning; businesses doesn't even get started until 11:00 AM. 

Because I have been so busy with settling down, meeting new people, and making lesson plans for class, I haven't been able to formally start my Arabic lessons. In the next few days I will purchase a beginner's textbook and make a schedule with someone patient enough to teach me Arabic. I don't have any classes on Thursdays and Fridays and it will be nice to have a little free time.