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’.