Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Saturday, 22 August 2009 12:15 UK

Arabic and friendship studies in Syria

The Syrian capital, Damascus, is becoming a popular destination for foreigners who want to learn Arabic. The BBC's Paul Moss, who spent time there earlier this year, was inspired to study hard by his encounters with the city's people.

Arabic dictionary
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters

Alex sent a text message to say he had been bitten by a snake. Perhaps I was unfair, but I reckoned he was making it up.

Among the great pantheon of excuses people have made for missing an exam, "attack by snake" must rate as one of the more implausible.

But Alex had sent the text message to several of my classmates, asking them to inform the authorities at Damascus University.

He would be absent, he said, from the final test for "Arabic level one" as he was still recovering from the venomous injury.

I doubt whether Alex's story will put many people off coming here.

Studying Arabic in Damascus is increasingly popular.

For anyone wanting to learn the language the city has become a Mecca, if you will pardon a somewhat inappropriate metaphor.

I had come because I often report from the Middle East for the BBC and thought it would be useful to be able to phone someone's office, for example, and ask for an interview.

Failing that, I hoped I might at least be able to stop at a cafe en route for the interview and use my linguistic skills to order a falafel.

Furrowed brows

The need to speak Arabic for work was what had driven several of the people on my course to come here.

Bookshop displaying Koran translations
The Koran has been translated into many languages

The class at Damascus University included two social workers, from Italy and Sweden, who both had responsibilities relating to Arab immigrants.

Then there was the teacher who had Arab children among her pupils back home.

But there were also devout Muslims, one from South Africa, and several from Yorkshire, England, all intent on being able to read the Koran in its original form.

As for Alex, I was never sure exactly why he was studying Arabic. But the intervention of the snake had, in any case, removed him from the equation.

Whatever their different motivations, the influx of all these would-be orientalists is changing the face of Damascus.

The city now teems with foreigners - mostly young, and living on a budget - yet shunning the laid-back idleness of your average backpacker.

This is a language where there is a grammatical rule to explain most things - unlike in English - but the rules are often desperately hard to grasp, let alone to memorise

There are no beaches for these diligent students, no yoga retreats, or opportunities to experiment with drugs.

Instead, they wander the streets of Damascus' Old City, their brows furrowed, as they mutter strange incantations under their breath.

In fact, this is the quiet chanting of irregular verbs or reciting of lists of nouns and their plurals.

The study is hard.

This is a language where there is a grammatical rule to explain most things - unlike in English - but the rules are often desperately hard to grasp.

Everyone goes through bad-tempered moments of wanting to give up altogether.

I myself had a particularly intense tantrum when confronted with the Arabic word for "there are", as applied to three or more non-human objects.

Reading from the original script, the word looked as though it was something like "Ha-aloo-ooh-ha-alloowi", though, as my textbook helpfully explained, the pronunciation is irregular.

Western hostility

But however modest our achievements, the presence of foreign students does seem to please the Damascenes.

A map of Syria showing Damascus

"Tadrusus el lawra Arabiya - hunna?" they ask delightedly - "You're studying Arabic - here?"

There is a serious side to this incredulity. Syrians tend to feel that their country is the object of Western hostility.

And it is true that although Syria did not quite make it on to George Bush's "axis of evil", it is usually seen as a close runner-up.

So the fact that Westerners choose to come here, and to study their language, is frequently a source of surprise and delight.

"You know Paul," my local barman assured me, "we don't hate American people, only the American government."

I was in the vanguard of a new cross-cultural movement, one that would transcend old enmities

I reminded him I was not actually American, but this minor detail was not sufficient to stem his flow.

"You Americans, you learn some Arabic, we learn a little English. We can all be friends."

It had been a particularly tough day, the verbs and the vocabulary taking their toll.

But somehow this image spurred me on.

No longer was I merely studying a language. I was in the vanguard of a new cross-cultural movement, that would transcend old enmities.

I returned to my rented room that night with renewed enthusiasm, and I studied hard.

In fact my whole class studied hard, and in the end, we all passed our beginner's Arabic exam.

Except Alex of course. It turned out the snake-bite story was true. He had the wound and the hospital stay to prove it.

But the experience had not been all that bad, he said. The hygiene on the ward was first-class and the nurses, he thought, were rather cute.

He had missed the exam. But last thing I heard, Alex had signed up with a private tutor, determined to nail that grammar once and for all.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Country profile: Syria
02 Aug 11 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific