All Berber dialects are mutually understandable
Arabic is not Arabic
Arabic is not easy to learn and needs a lot of perseverance. Those who do not shy away from the effort will be rewarded with warm encounters. Damascus is particularly suitable for learning the language.
"Do you speak Arabic?" - The seller's face brightens into a big smile. That language can be the key to a culture in many ways has been shown to me again and again since I knelt in Arabic. As I speak the Syrian dialect, I hardly have any discussions with taxi drivers. While every second person used to want to rip me off, most people now turn on the meter without comment when I tell them where I want to go.
Standard Arabic and dialect
But that is certainly due to the Syrian dialect - I was much worse off with Standard Arabic. And here is the first difficulty in learning Arabic. The high-level Arabic language is far removed from the colloquial language in the various Arab countries, and it is important to decide whether you only want to learn one or the other or whether you have the capacity to learn the basics of a dialect in addition to the high-level language.
The first frustration during my language stay in Damascus was the realization that after two years of studying Arabic in Zurich I couldn't understand a word of what people were talking about - except when they switched to standard Arabic across from me, which is de facto mostly a mixture of dialect and standard language was. The course at the University of Zurich was geared towards understanding texts, which is why the focus was on grammar. So I was able to translate a text from the 14th century with the help of a dictionary, but my active vocabulary was hardly sufficient to cope with everyday life.
Why Syria is suitable
In Damascus, where the dialect is still relatively close to the standard language, the ratio can be compared with the Zurich dialect and standard German. In Egypt, the direction of Valais German is already moving, and the Moroccan mixture of Arabic, French and Berber dialect is difficult to understand, even for native Arabic speakers. That is one reason why Syria is suitable for learning the Arabic language. In addition, many Syrians speak foreign languages only poorly - in contrast to neighboring Lebanon, where even questions from a foreigner formulated in correct Arabic are consistently answered in English and French.
A safe country to travel to
In addition, Syria is still a safe and stable country - also for women. Although Syria fell into disrepute after being declared a rogue state by the Bush administration, the country has not been at war since 1973 and is considered one of the safest countries for tourists to visit in the Middle East. So far, the unrest in the other Arab countries has not spread to Syria, and the people do not seem to dare to revolt.
When I went to Syria for my first long stay, I unexpectedly had reason to worry about security. At that time, however, it was not about a possible popular uprising. It was July 2006 when Israel was at war in Lebanon. I still remember seeing the pictures of the bombing of Beirut on television shortly after my arrival and writing to my Lebanese friends with great concern. The next thought was that the war could spread to Syria. The Swiss embassy was prepared for evacuations - as successfully happened in Lebanon.
In that sense, there was little to worry about, and after a few days the war seemed unlikely to escalate. But the war in the neighboring country depressed everyone. Unfortunately, people kept asking me whether I was for or against Israel, which I usually tried to answer with a diplomatic "I am against the war".
Improvisation and perseverance
In addition, however, I experienced disarming hospitality. In more provincial towns this went so far that the two of us sat in a park and someone brought us coffee - even without asking us curiously where we were from. I also learned from the Syrians to be extremely flexible and to improvise. Those who always want to plan everything in advance often come up against their limits. But with flexibility and a little patience, almost anything will succeed. It starts with the choice of language course. Because I did not want to deepen the grammar knowledge I had acquired in Zurich and instead intended to learn conversation and reading newspapers, I switched to private lessons after a month at the Institute of the University of Damascus. The University of Damascus offers Arabic for foreign speakers for around 360 francs per month. The program comprises eight different levels from beginner to advanced, each lasting four weeks. The courses include grammar, writing, reading, and conversation in Standard Arabic.
You can use it to make yourself understood, but it is advisable to learn at least a few basics of the colloquial language, because in everyday life the standard Arabic that you know from school and the news is alien to people. So it is very useful to know that in the Levant they say “Shu beddak” for “What do you want” and not “Madha turid” in High Arabic, which tends to amuse people.
Advantages of private lessons
In addition to the university, there are other institutes that offer Arabic courses, as well as plenty of private tutors. So far I haven't heard anything positive from any institute. It therefore takes all the more initiative and perseverance with the existing offers, the quality of which also depends heavily on the teacher. The only courses that are highly praised are those at the IFPO (Institut Français du Proche-Orient), which are aimed exclusively at advanced students, are very expensive and only offer a limited number of places.
Private tutors, on the other hand, are easy to organize. The Syrians are very helpful, and over a few corners most of them know someone who gives lessons. Another possibility is to ask for private tutors at the Goethe-Institut or the IFPO. After a trial lesson, you can quickly see whether you like them. Private lessons cost between 10 and 25 francs, and you can decide for yourself which focus you want to set - dialect, standard Arabic, newspaper reading, television series, everyday vocabulary, poetry and much more.
Last but not least, Syria is a fascinating travel destination for anyone interested in history. All the major civilizations of the Mediterranean have left their mark here. And the country has not yet been spoiled by mass tourism.
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