By Harout Ekmanian
A sunny September morning a couple of years ago, I was in Damascus, walking numb in an old narrow street, wearing blue jeans, a white shirt, waxy hair and big sunglasses, a bag on my back, and headphones on my head. As I saw two men with big mustaches and giant bellies staring at me gawkily, I shut down my music player to hear their conversation. They were thinking that I’m an “idiot tourist”; wondering what in the world brings these curious strangers to their old cozy streets where they play backgammon peacefully every day. They were also making fun of my casual outfit. I enjoyed the look on their faces when I greeted in Arabic and invited them to visit Aleppo adding a smirk on my face. They kept staring gawkily.
Maybe these men were kind to foreigners in general. After all, most of us sometimes stare at things that are different from our definition of normal. Staring is human nature. One may argue just as people like to scan their eyes across the horizon for whatever arouses interest. A guy can stare to check out a cute girl. A girl can stare to gossip about another girl. People stare to make fun of others with unusual features or attitudes.
However, “our stare” tends to break the universal social norm because it is very distinct. All people stare, but we “stare”… for a long, long time. Often, this stare lasts longer than the 1 or 2 second courtesy glance. Perhaps what makes it distinct is the length, facial expression, and other things that are difficult to describe in words. That blank stare is one of those things you need to experience for yourself to know. It makes a self-conscious victim feel weak, demoralized, and provokes the ever-so-common self-questioning: Why?! Is there something on my face? Do I look weird?
“Stop staring at people”. Since childhood, this is a phrase that I’ve heard so often from my mother. Whatever the reason, it still gives no reason for constant staring. People can really get annoying when they keep staring whilst you’re waiting for the bus or at a restaurant. Sometimes the reason for most stares can be that you might be doing something weird or you look different to them, or simply because the staring person wants to fill some of his free time by doing so. As for women, they have further reasons to receive drooling stares in our society, because we are more likely to look more at people we like, but unfortunately some gentlemen still don't have the manners to stop looking.
Recently, we are having even more conveniences to evolve our staring tactics. More and more restaurants and cafés have no sidewalk barriers on the streets, or they have such large glass windows that the passersby can check the people inside, their company, dresses, even the orders on the table. It is becoming a normal mechanism in Syria, where people are used to staring and being stared at. However, this can be quite intimidating to accept at first for a foreigner.
To understand the gawky stares that I am talking about, one should hang around the Aleppo citadel just for an hour, and see the tourists serving as an attention device for local blank stares. It gives an impression that Syrians think of Germans, Russians, or Asians, for example, like they’re extra terrestrials.
Some people, who have inferiority complex, stare at foreigners as if they’re supermen, worrying if they are pleased in Syria and if they liked Syrians. While some others, who blindly classify themselves as “more evolved and superior”, can’t help staring gawkily at the attentive foreigners, and expressing sarcasm about their appearance, attitude, or anything which is unfamiliar for them.
It seems that teachers at the schools - beside the regular teachings like “don’t cut trees” and “be nice to your friends” - should start telling children not to welcome others with gawky blank stares. Because by doing that you’re discrediting no one but yourself, because it’s a retarded manner. Although we can never have doubts about the Syrian hospitality, which has countless proofs throughout history, and there are hundreds of poems and a huge literature about that, however, sadly many people have short memory, and besides, no one reads that stuff these days. That’s why we have to take the proper measures to interpret our honesty, good will and sincere intentions in the best way that can be perceived. Perhaps, as a first step, if we stop staring at foreigners, or at each other nationwide, and mind our own business, the number of the tourists would double or maybe triple...
Article appeared in the August 2009 issue of Forward Magazine, published by Haykal Media in Syria.
Posted in Azad-Hye with the consent of the writer.