The streets of the sophisticated Abou Roumaneh neighborhood in Damascus are known for their fashionable stores and restaurants, but lately the trendiest spot in the area is the American Language Center. This small building beside the United States Embassy is the unofficial meeting place for the city's young and well-to-do, who gather here for lessons on how to speak idiomatic American English. The center's more than two thousand students include the children of the government elite and of the powerful merchant class, as well as up-and-coming journalists, lawyers, and doctors, all of whom recognize that the ability to speak English, the lingua franca of globalization, will very likely determine the course of their careers.
In one recent two-hour class, a twentysomething American teacher led a dozen advanced students through their grammar lessons by asking them to recount how they spent their weekend. There was a familiar refrain in the classroom as one student after another said she spent her time watching television—tuned not to Al Jazeera or another of the Arabic satellite channels, but rather to that juggernaut of daytime TV, The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Deena, a veiled 20-year-old Damascus University student, cheerfully explained the extent of Oprah's influence over Syrians both male and female. To them, the queen of American pop culture, who sits down with politicians and Brad Pitt alike, represents everything that's missing in Syrian society today. "On Oprah, everyone speaks freely about whatever they like," Deena said. "They talk about sex, politics, family, all their problems in life. In Syria, we also all have these problems, but we can't talk about them—that's our biggest problem."
Syria may be the last place one would expect to find people clamoring for Oprah and other American pop-culture standards. Under the dubious guidance of the 40-year-old Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency from his father, Hafez, five years ago, the last stronghold of Baathist Arab nationalism has been at odds with the United States for over two years now. The Bush administration has accused Syria of aiding insurgents in Iraq and supporting Palestinian and Lebanese terror organizations. Further, the suspicion that senior figures in the Syrian regime may have been involved in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri has made the country a pariah state in the eyes of the world community. This is hardly the reform-minded governance most people anticipated from a self-advertised London-schooled and computer-literate president whose glamorous first lady, Asma, comes off as an Arab-world Jackie Kennedy.
But even as Syrian officials become increasingly isolated from the world, restless young Syrians in Damascus and beyond are upending conventional wisdom about the clash of civilizations and turning toward the West for inspiration in their daily lives. In spite of Assad's combative regime, the country is in the midst of a profound, inexorable social transformation, as Syrians embrace not only the English language but also the mighty behemoth of American culture.
These days, nightclubs in Damascus all feature a healthy combination of Arabic and Western music, but it's J.Lo and Eminem that pack the dance floor at places like Masaya—a small, dark English-style tavern along one of the oldest streets in the world, Medhat Basha. Here, up-and-coming professionals and college students try out the latest dance steps from music videos; they practice their English by singing along to Santana and Coldplay and speaking with the occasional American or European traveler.
"It's not Beirut, but things are definitely changing here," says Soleiman Farkouh, the smartly dressed 42-year-old owner of Al-Dar 111, a popular restaurant in the Christian Quarter of the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. "Though Damascus is a quiet town, it's starting to develop a very sophisticated and cultured international scene."
A Damascus native, Farkouh studied in Europe and worked in North America before returning to Syria seven years ago. His restaurant, set among the cafés, clubs, and bars of the ancient Old City, reflects Farkouh's far-flung influences. There's the relentlessly American pop-music sound track, the Arab-fusion cuisine, and the meticulous renovation that turned this once decrepit villa into a modern Oriental palace, complete with courtyard fountain and the requisite minimalist décor. What's most impressive about Al-Dar 111, however, is the people packed within: whispering couples tucked into dark corners; elegantly suited members of Damascus's diplomatic set; aggressive businessmen making deals, dates, and threats over their cell phones. They are all part of a growing community of Syrians for whom global fusion is often more important than Arab nationalism.
Still, if the blossoming of the country's nightlife suggests a new level of worldliness and poise among Syrians, the political culture is a long way from catching up. The promised transformation that Assad seemed to embody five years ago has not yet come to pass. Despite a loosening of certain antiquated regulations over cell phones, credit cards, and real estate, political leaders remain as entrenched as ever in this one-party town. Throughout Damascus the streets and even taxis are festooned with Baathist slogans and pictures of both Assads. Meanwhile, the ruling cadre continues to play a game of international brinkmanship with the United States and Europe. Indeed, the longer Assad remains in power, the more apparent it is that social change is outpacing political reform in Syria.
To be sure, the political elite is hanging on, but ordinary Damascenes, in their yearning for alternative cultural influences, have already been won over by America's vast empire of movies, TV, and music—not to mention Oprah's alluring combination of openness and honesty. Despite all the commotion in the United States about the challenge of winning hearts and minds in the Arab world, it seems that on some level this task doesn't have to involve governments and certainly need not be a battle.
LEE SMITH is a journalist based in Lebanon.