Our man in Damascus (Part II)

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One of the biggest challenges for immigrants to Israel is overcoming the language barrier. Aside from adapting to the Israeli concept of personal space (there is none), many Western immigrants struggle with the task of learning Hebrew and its unique alphabet, grammar and vocabulary. One immigrant in particular was previously familiar with the challenge of assimilating linguistically into an unfamiliar culture.

Lee, 26, was born and bred in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of 3 siblings. His father is in the woodworking business, his mother is a graphic designer, and as of a month ago, Lee has begun a short stint in the IDF serving in COGAT (Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories).

“My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from a small town in the West of Poland. His whole family was killed in the war, and he actually made it to Israel in 1949 and served in the IDF at  the Tzrifin base. He moved to Canada after that, but remained a big supporter of Israel and donated large sums to Israeli causes. My mom was part of Hadassah Women, so I guess you could say I grew up in an atmosphere that was supportive of Israel.

“I came to Israel a bunch of times growing up – I came here for my Bar-Mitzvah, I did Birthright, I spent a semester in Hebrew University, and I postponed doing ulpan on a kibbutz because the second Lebanon war broke out and my Mom got real upset about me being there so I decided to choose a better time.”

While studying political science in Hebrew University, Lee decided to move to Israel, and came to an unusual conclusion – he would put learning Hebrew on the backburner and focus instead on learning Arabic. It occurred to him that he wanted to come to Israel bearing a skill that would be in high demand, and it is known that there is a dire lack of Arabic linguists in Israel. Historically, many of the Jewish immigrants from Arab-countries up until the 70’s were made to feel embarrassed of their native tongue. Lee, however, is convinced that knowledge of Arabic is essential to integrating fully into Middle Eastern reality. Despite the technical difficulties, he thoroughly enjoyed learning Arabic and was fortunate to pursue his new-found passion with invaluable assistance from enthusiastic teachers along the way.

“Learning Arabic is something that makes you feel more comfortable in this country. If you define yourself as Zionist, you need to feel comfortable in this country, and part of being comfortable is being aware of the native culture and language”.

“Many Israelis’ find it scary to hear Arabic – whenever they hear Arabic they wrongly assume they’re being spoken about negatively. And I’m not saying that if Israelis spoke Arabic there would automatically be peace. But at least we could communicate effectively – whatever your political views, there’s no downside to knowing Arabic – in peace or at war.”

Lee put his money where his mouth was, and bought a $300 flight from Ben Gurion to Amman. He could have crossed by land, but Jordan was not his final destination. Lee planned to go to Damascus to learn Arabic from the most reputable teachers, and the stamp on the Jordanian border would be proof to the Syrians of his having sojourned in the Zionist entity.

So he flew to Jordan, and began studying Arabic at the University of Jordan in their program for foreign students. At the time, there were a lot of Korean and Turkish students, as well as a couple of Americans. Lee decided not to disclose his Jewish identity in public, but when he shared a room with a Palestinian from Columbia, and a Lebanese Australian, he felt comfortable enough to reveal to them privately that he was Jewish.

“They were cool with it, but the Palestinian guy’s cousin was very hostile to Jews and Israelis (in Arabic there’s a very fine line between the two) and my roomie had to hide my identity when he was talking to him”.

Amman has a notorious reputation for being boring, so Lee made a couple of weekend excursions to Damascus. A short time later, he enrolled in the University of Damascus’ month-long Arabic program for foreign students. This time, however, he made a point of not revealing his Jewish identity to anyone.


“Whereas in Jordan the government officials are pretty reasonable and it’s the people you have to watch out for, it seems that the officials in Syria are the ones you have to worry about, while the crowd I hung out with in Damascus was pretty reasonable and liberal.

“I told one Syrian guy I became friendly with during my time in Damascus through couchsurfing that I had worked in Israel in the past, and he was fine with that. During the current war in Syria, he even contacted me to ask if I thought there was any chance that he could seek refuge and study in Israel. I told him that I wasn’t optimistic.

“Once, however, one of my roommates was this 40 year old refugee from Iraq, and he started spouting this tirade about how everything bad was because of the Jews, and I just had to sit through it. I was in Damascus at the time of the raid of the Marmara flotilla, and I walked through this government-sponsored rally with Hezbollah banners”

But Syrians didn’t spend all their time protesting. Their nightlife was worth a mention too.

“There’s a famous nightclub in Damascus called the Vida Loca, and they have two parties – a matinee and a soiree. The matinee is between 3-7pm, and they open at those hours because there are a lot of good girls who have to be home by nightfall, and it’s amazing – you see girls wearing hijabs grinding with guys on the dance floor. They serve alcohol and they have their own DJ’s. But from what I hear at the soiree there’s a lot of Russian prostitutes.”

After finishing that chapter in his Middle East adventure, Lee went to the UK and completed an MA in Middle East studies and Arabic at SOAS, which is known as a vehemently anti-Israel school. After that, Lee developed an app together with a friend called Swearport that teaches curse words in more than 70 different languages, and managed to make some money before Apple decided to withdraw his app, citing inappropriate content (still downloadable for Android, at 99 cents only!)

At this point, Lee was ready to fulfill his commitment to make Aliyah, and succeeded in netting a job working as a translator for MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), an NGO that monitors Middle Eastern media outlets and  releases translations of items from major networks  that reflect the mood on the Arab street for Western media. During the evenings, Lee conducted an Arabic class at his apartment in Jerusalem, drawing a mixture of local Israelis, Palestinians and tourists. He named the class “Damascus Gate Arabic”, and the sign is still proudly displayed in his room.

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Two months ago, he was called up to serve six months in the army, which he welcomed as an opportunity to do his national duty while translating articles from Palestinian newspapers and improving his Hebrew.

“In the army I’m known as the guy who was in Syria. There are some Druze guys who call me Abu Ali…. I feel that I am treated very well by the army – I’m a Lone Soldier but I’m not a lonely soldier. I have a broader perspective on army conditions because of my experience in the Arab world – I appreciate Israel’s achievements as a Middle Eastern country with limited natural resources. I’ve seen how the Jordanian and Syrian armies treat their soldiers – now that’s really bad – they never make enough money, their uniforms don’t match, their vehicles are messed up, and the army budget is controlled by corrupt generals.

“If I could give some advice to lone soldiers, it would be to live modestly – conform your lifestyle to the means the army provides, don’t go out to Burgers Bar and complain when you have no money left for essentials.

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“Also, going to communal Shabbat dinners organized by friends or the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin will keep you entertained, broaden your social scene, and just as importantly, will strengthen your connection to Judaism. Trying to do even a minute amount of Jewish stuff will help you experience what it is we’re defending here and help you to appreciate Jewish culture and history”.

Lee intends to remain in Israel after finishing his army service and utilize his unique experience of the Middle East to continue pursuing his linguistic passion.

About the Author
Zak Yitro is a Dublin-born, Jerusalem-based, world-aspiring freelance photographer, visual artist and public speaker.