Study Experience 1: The University of Damascus (Jami’a Dimashq)

The University of Damascus has a number of campuses in different parts of the city, and its program for foreigners seeking to learn Arabic is situated on their Liberal Arts campus in Mezzeh (one of the city’s wealthier areas). They offer a series of eight one-month courses on Arabic for beginners. When I attended the program about a year and a half ago, the fee was 10,000SP a month (about $200), but I believe the price has increased to somewhere between $300-350 (which is extremely expensive according to Syrian standards.) They’ve also recently added ‘Aamiya classes (colloquial Arabic) to their program.

I started attending classes there just a few days after we arrived in Damascus, and I was quite shocked by the Syrians I saw and also by my European classmates. (The majority of the students in the Arabic program were Westerners, on scholarships or their junior year abroad). I thought that we were coming to a traditional, ancient, religious land… but Jami’a Dimashq is not exactly where you see that. The Liberal Arts campus is apparently known for being “modern” and somewhat of a fashion hub in the city. (Some of my friends say it’s very ‘90210’ :)) Many of the girls don’t wear hijab, and of those who did, I’d never seen so many different and fashionable ways of wearing it, some conforming to religious guidelines, and some not. (I think that most of the time in the U.S. if a woman chooses to wear hijab it’s solely with the desire to follow the Islamic ruling on the matter, and there aren’t really any social or cultural factors involved… but in Muslim countries it’s more complex than that and may even relate to fashion, reputation or family status, etc.) It seemed that the new trend at the time I arrived was for girls to wear skirts to the knees, boots that reached mid-calf, and show about six inches of leg in between which I found so strange to see on a hijabi. Lots of makeup and extremely fitted clothing (even for teachers and those working in administration) were also in. (but there were girls who were able to fuse western fashion elements and proper hijab which was cool, like chic monteaus, long denim skirts and jackets, flowy dresses and skirts, etc.)

The young men were not much different with slicked back hair, designer-labeled shirts, and narrow jeans or leather pants (!). Basically it was a typical picture of upper-class Arab youth, their dress and their manners largely guided by the images they saw on satellite, from American films, the Arabic music industry, European fashion, etc.

Having European classmates was also something new for me. The Italians totally fulfilled my pre-conceived stereotypes of wearing beautiful clothes and passionately smoking cigarette after cigarette during the breaks. (Europeans must not have the same “No Smoking” laws we do in the U.S. I don’t know how they would survive, because they all seem to be so addicted.) Along with the Italians there were also students from Germany, Norway, France, the U.K., a handful from the U.S., and a few from other European countries.

You could tell the breakup of the students by our answers to the teacher’s question, “Where do you live?” About 95% of the students would answer, “Bab Tuma” (the traditionally Christian quarter of the city, and where most foreigners live because it’s a more ‘liberal’ part of town) and the rest of us would say “Rukn an-Deen” (the ‘students of deen’ area, where the Shariah College Abou Nour is located).

Most of the non-Muslim students were people who were interested in Islam and Muslim culture, and were open-minded, so it was nice if the opportunity arose to answer their questions or talk to them about Islam. (Whenever I met people like that I would always feel guilty about our lack of good quality da’wah programs and projects in the West… there are a lot of good people out there who, if they came to understand Islam, would embrace it or at least have an enlightened, positive opinion about it.) I also met a few Muslims who were studying with the intent of doing some really effectual and meaningful things in the world (changing foreign policy, Middle Eastern-Western relations, etc) which was awesome.

A big positive was that it was a pretty professional program with good, qualified teachers. We would study for four hours a day, grammar and reading, and there was a lot of emphasis on conversation. Their style of teaching was modern, in the sense that the relationship between teacher and student was relaxed, there was a lot of student participation, use of worksheets, and creative approaches to learning etc.

The negatives are: its price, which is at least twice as much as any of the other programs available in Damascus (possibly excluding the French Institute) and is not worth that much in my opinion, when there are other programs available. The program’s quality has declined in the last few years, according to people I’ve spoken to who had attended it back in its “good old days”, when classes were two months long. Since the classes are now monthly there’s a large turn-over rate and often students are not at the same level so there’s repetition of material.

In addition, studying there was a largely non-spiritual experience for me, and I think for most Muslims it would be the same. It’s understandable, I think, when you consider the environment and the objectives of most of the other students (which are usually not related to religion). The administration also seems to pride itself in being a secular institute, without really making any amenities for their Muslim students, like not providing a place to pray (we prayed in an empty classroom) and having mid-term exams the morning after the 27th night of Ramadan. Any religious expression is kept completely to the personal realm, so it’s just like studying in the U.S. in this regard.

These things come together to make the program one that is not really conducive to studying a sacred language for a sacred purpose. Also, much of what is taught is not relevant to someone seeking to learn Arabic to understand the Quran or read classical texts. For example, their vocabulary focuses on modern words related to business and government, and their recently added ‘Aaamiya classes are more beneficial for those studying culture and not classical religious works.

I remember one day when I was hanging out outside my classroom, a British girl, who had been studying Arabic at a posh university in England, said to me, “Did you know that there’s another school here in Damascus that all the poor Somalians go to to study Arabic?”

I just stared at her for a minute and tried to keep a blank face. Finally I asked, “Really? Do you mean Abou Nour?”

She said, “Yeah! I heard that it’s really ghetto, but they’re so cheap, so that’s where they all go…”

This was one of the times that I really felt a deeply intrinsic sense of superiority ingrained in some people from the West. It happened sometimes that I overheard conversations among the Westerners in my class about the Syrians and how silly or strange they found their culture and practices to be, which I felt harkened back to an era of paternalism, “Those silly natives, they just need us to teach them how to be civilized…”

I wanted to tell this girl that I had actually decided to study there for the next term; and that it’s not just poor Somalis that go there, but people from all over the Muslim world, admittedly most of them non-White, and most of them poor relative to Western standards… but I just kept quiet. Maybe I’d fit in better with the ‘poor Somalis’ than the ‘rich Westerners’.

Published in: on May 18, 2007 at 6:26 pm  Comments (21)  

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21 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Assalamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullaah…

    Jazaakillaahu Khayraa once more. Very enlightening, as usual.



  2. If they are so poor, then I wonder why robin thicke married a somalian?

  3. as salaamu alaykum,

    Nadia, I actually had to google ‘robin thicke’ because I didn’t know who he/she was… maybe I’ve been away from the West for too long 🙂

    I definitely felt that that comment was thoughtless and offensive to a lot of people, which is why I was so shocked by it…


  4. Salaam’alaykum sister..

    I think, with ‘ilm, no one is poor at all. =)

    Anw, I’m from Singapore and by His Grace, I will join you there in Sham soon. =)

  5. Salamua Aleikum, im planning to go to Abu Nour on January 2008 to study Arabic and Islam. I dont have enought money to pay ALL the course, maybe i could pay two or three levels of the arabic intesive course or ITALIS. Is any kind of scholarship or study-and-work program.
    Shukran Yazilan


  6. I don’t wish to be pedantic, or to suggest you’re being economimcal with the truth, but this is a thread about learning language, so…

    As an Englishman who has lived in the States for a few years, I can vouch for the fact that no speaker of British English would ever EVER actually use the phrase “they’re so cheap”. The use of “cheap” as an adjective to describe a person is a totally American phenomenon – in Britain that adjective is used solely to describe an object not a person – were you to say someone was “cheap” in British English it would imply they were a prostitute who didn’t cost very much.

    In much the same way, in British English, “ghetto” is used solely as a noun, never as an adjective.

    Perhaps you translated the actual conversation for an American audience?

    • Oh my! …another Brit who feels he needs to teach everyone posh “English.”. Pleasssssse!

      If this is her story…accept it. Buddy. If u don’t like it nor agree…take ur catechism elsewhere. For GAWD’s sake!!!

  7. Hi James,

    “they’re so cheap”, meaning the institute/programs they offer are very cheap, so that’s why all the Somali students go there.

    About the use of the word “ghetto”: that’s what I recall her saying, and that term is what I took particular offense too (Abu Nour *is* cheap/inexpensive, so I didn’t have any problem with that) I’m not sure how it is commonly used in the U.K. vs the U.S., but that’s how I remember it.

    Sorry for any lack of clarity.

    take care,


  8. as salaamu alaykum Maximo,

    I think you should speak to the idara (administration) at Abu Nour and they should be able to help you out, with a payment plan or something similar. You can try to call and speak with them over the phone (the number is on their website, They are not so good with responding to email so it’s best to call from what I’ve heard.

    However in my personal opinion, I would suggest that you save up enough money for at least a year’s worth of studies and for living expenses. You never know what may happen in terms of medical or other types of emergencies, so it’s good to be prepared, both financially and spiritually.

    take care and may Allah accept your efforts.

  9. Assalamu alaikum,

    I had a quick question: How fluent could someone get in the Arabic language after studying at Abu Nour for 1 year? Can you converse, understand lectures, read Islamic books on tafseer, hadeeth, fiqh, etc.? I’ve been thinking about going there next year inshallah.

  10. Salaam,

    Jazak Allah Khair for this wonderful post. Living in Damascus today, I’ve experienced similar situations in more than one case – be it the Syrian ‘hijab’ or the distinction between bab touma/abu noor as it relates to status and what not.

    I love your blog btw. So where have you gone? 🙂 It’d be nice to read more posts.



  11. Assalam Walikum brothers and sisters in Islam

    I am very much intrested in Abu Nour Foundation especially the ITALIS but can someone please tell me what are the entry requirements to register on this program.

  12. Assalaam u alaikum. I want to have the contact nos of Jamia Dimashq. Will anybody help me please.

    Best regrds.

  13. Asalamalykum. I want to study Islamic Studies in Damascus but I am not a native Arabic speaker. Would you have any good suggestions for this? Is it better to learn basic Arabic first and then do Islamic Studies? Also, are there any host families that a person can live with while visiting Syria?

  14. Hello,

    I found your blog very interesting and informative, thank you! I would like to learn Arabic (just to get the basics of conversation to start with and hopefully apply those skills when in the country to improve).

    I am British from the UK, would you recommend this course or the course at Abu Nour, I would just like somewhere I can learn the language (preferably at a reasonably low cost, I’m not going to look down on anyone for saving money!) and absorb the culture and learn about Islam.

    I would be going on my own so somewhere I will feel accepted would be great!

    I hope you can give some advice to get me started,

    Thank you,


    • Hi Amanda,

      Honestly speaking, I haven’t lived in Syria for a few years now, so I’m not sure what programs are still available in Damascus. Your best bet would be to speak to someone who has visited there recently from the U.K. if you know anyone, and try to find out what the institutes are currently offering, and also about the feasibility of getting a visa for a long-term stay. There are other places in the Muslim world where one can study Arabic (Cairo, where I live now, has a number of Arabic institutes especially for foreigners, and I know Morocco is also a very accommodating place for people from the West seeking to learn Arabic), but Syria is really a very beautiful and blessed place, and one in which the culture has been quite well preserved so it’s a lovely experience if you do get the chance to go. The other nice thing about Syria, at least at the time that I was there, is that it is quite safe for women, and women do have mobility to go out and travel on their own etc, though you have to be practical and cautious at times of course.

      Hope all goes well with your travels!

      take care,


  16. Salaam,

    I am from the UK and going to study arabic in Damascus soon insha Allah but I am not sure whether to go to Damascus uni or Abu Noor. Any bros/sis who can give abit more info, I’ll be extremely grateful. Please reply to my email as I check that email regularly.

    Thank You


  17. Current Address and Contact Information of the Institute:

    Arabic Teaching Institute for Non-Arabic Speakers
    Mezzah, Villat Sharkiyya
    Damascus- Syria
    P.O. Box 9340
    T: +963-11-613 2646/613 3151*
    F: +963-11-611 9453
    Director: Dr. Hazem Alwani

    The Abu Nour Islamic Foundation

    The Abu Nour Islamic Foundation has been closed to teaching foreign students since 2005. Read this article.

    Abu Nour Islamic Foundation
    PO Box 7410
    Phone, 00 963 11 277 66 53 – 277 71 58 – 277 66 53
    Fax: 00 963 11 276 49 89 – 332 16 77

  18. Asalamalykum. I want to study Islamic Studies in Damascus but I am not a native Arabic speaker. Would you have any good suggestions for this? I want to do Arabic language course, but i can’t afford the fee of this course, would you like to help for this course, i lived in pakistan, i belong to a very poor family, My family can’t afford that but would like to do the same course. I have done Master in Islamic Study from Jamia Islamia Minhaj ul Quran. Kindly help me the same course, I am very thankful to you if you do the same.

  19. Asalamalykum. I want to study Islamic Studies in Damascus but I am not a native Arabic speaker. Would you have any good suggestions for this? I want to do Arabic language course, but i can’t afford the fee of this course, would you like to help for this course, i lived in pakistan, i belong to a very poor family, My family can’t afford that but would like to do the same course. I have done Master in Islamic Study from Jamia Islamia Minhaj ul Quran. Kindly help me the same course, I am very thankful to you if you do the same.

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