Lost, I strolled up to a middle-aged gentleman standing a few feet beside me who was leisurely munching on a bag of peanuts. I cleared my throat as I approached him. “Marhaba,” I said in my peculiar Arabic accent, trying my best to say “Hello.” As the man turned to me, I asked if he could direct me to the market.
There was no rush; everything in Aleppo, Syria, happens in its own time. The man offered me some of his peanuts. I declined politely as he extended the snack-sized bag. I made sure to say, “Shokran,” or “Thank you,” so as to not offend, but he insisted. Having already lived here for a few months on my Fulbright grant, I understood this was part of the intricate, Syrian hospitality waltz. It’s a well-established, figurative dance based on a set of unspoken rules. If you watch it take place between two locals, it can be quite beautiful. I was still learning. I explained how I had just eaten lunch and was absolutely stuffed. I followed with a comment about how delicious my meal had been, and he smiled and instructed me to follow him.
We exchanged stories as we walked down the busy street. I mentioned that I was a Fulbright Student studying food in Aleppo; he chuckled and assured me I had come to the right place. In fact, many Arabs and food scholars consider Aleppo to be the culinary capital of the Middle East. Historically situated along the Silk Road, Aleppo has served as the home for a myriad of cultures: Armenian, Circassian, Greek, Jewish, Kurdish, and Turkish. They have all played a role in shaping what Aleppan food is today.
The conversation with the older gentleman went smoothly, as if I were chatting with an old friend. Once he knew I was there to study lunch, he began to tell me of all the dishes I needed to taste. As we passed prominent landmarks, he interjected to explain how I could find my way in case I ever got lost again. He insisted on walking with me until he felt confident I could find the market. When we arrived at the point where we parted ways, he extended his bag of peanuts one more time. I couldn’t say no, not after all that we’d shared. That would be considered, “aaeeb,” or “shameful.”
I politely grabbed a couple peanuts from the small bag and tossed them in my mouth. They were dry-roasted and salted, and actually very tasty. I thanked him again, “Shokran,” and repeated it a couple more times. He responded by extending his open hand across his chest, over his heart, saying, “Ya meet ahlan w sahlan,” which roughly translates into, “Oh, you are most welcome a hundred times over.”
In Syria, and across much of the Middle East, symbolic gestures, however small, can have significant social implications. These gestures are equivalent to the imperceptible signals exchanged between two dance partners on a dance floor. Placing your hand over your heart is understood to be a gesture of openness and sincerity. Numbers also play an important role in social exchange. Many Arabic phrases can be reinforced by a quantitative amount. For instance, if you want to congratulate someone, you can say, “Mabrook.” But for emphasis, you would say, “Alf mabrook,” which literally means, “A thousand congratulations.” Even ordinary exchanges can sometimes trigger the waltz. The expression for “good morning” is “sabah al kher,” literally, “morning of goodness.” A standard response would be “sabah al noor,” or, “morning of light,” but you might also hear, “ya meet sabah,” which translates into “one hundred beautiful mornings.”
During my stay in Syria, I met many people, like the middle-aged man, who were interested in getting to know me – and vice versa. Conversations that started about eggplants and parsley evolved into stories of love and companionship, culture and politics.
These exchanges, however imperceptible, are indicators of a larger dance meant to teach us about one another. They are a means by which we can participate in each other’s cultures and form relationships based on mutual understanding. I consider these interactions to be highlights of my Fulbright in Syria. These are the interactions I carry in my heart and continue to share on my blog in an effort to continue the waltz I started more than a year ago.
My tips for Fulbright applicants:
- If you are in a city with other Fulbright students, try not to spend most of your time with them. The best experiences come when you form new relationships with locals from your host country.
- If you are interested in improving your language skills, set up informal conversation sessions with someone who has similar interests. This will make language learning more enjoyable and will be a great way to meet new people.
- Participate in local events that align with your personal interests. This will help you establish a network of friends you can connect with during – and after – your Fulbright grant.
- Never stay at home by yourself. Always reach outside of your comfort zone. Meet new people even if it seems awkward or difficult at times. Invite friends to share a meal, set up weekly movie nights – participate in events that are fun. Remember that cultural exchange can happen anywhere, anytime.
Top Photo: Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria (second from left), forming friendships with Bedouins who hosted him during a camping trip to Palmyra, Syria
Middle Photo: One of the many entrances to the interconnected labyrinths that make up the ancient markets of Aleppo
Bottom Photo:Antonio Tahhan, 2010-2011, Syria, walking through the valley in Ma’loula — a town of about 2,000 inhabitants and one of the only remaining places on earth where Aramaic is still spoken.