I lived in Syria, pre civil war, before it became known to many as hell on earth, for about six months.

A chance chat with a lovely beautician led me to rent a room in her home. To say that Syria was nothing like today is an understatement.

After a few months studying Arabic at the University of Damascus, I still hadn’t managed to get grasp on the language and was no nearer to the local culture than when I’d set out from my travels in Lebanon.

My fellow students were a fun bunch – aspiring bankers (Islamic banking was just becoming trendy), aid workers and spies (claiming to be from Switzerland or working for the British Foreign Office). However with the rare exception, they were all from the West, university educated, middle class. Just like me.

A new type of school

I’d heard about a place called Abu Nour, a mosque in Damascus with Arabic courses for foreigners.

Reports were very mixed, with some warning me against its brainwashing propaganda, others suggesting I’d end up in trouble with the state, and others saying that the courses were very mismanaged.

I fancied that even if I didn’t learn much Arabic, at least it’d be a break from the norm.

Classes were single sex, with a separate wing of the building set aside for women. We were all required to wear the hijbab and respectable clothing; this was a place of worship after all. We needed to cover all but the face, hands and feet with loose fitting clothing. In practice if you weren’t in a floor length abaya, you’d stand out. Nail polish, long nails and make up were out, rigorous hand and feet washing was in.

I love makeup. I’m not shy of a mini skirt. But this lifestyle was a truly refreshing break from it all. I still own and cherish my abaya today.

Fellow students

The other girls (I say girls, not women, as most were under 18) came from Turkey, Uzbekistan, other former soviet bloc countries, as well as parts of the West, notably the UK, US and Canada. It was interesting to see that the most devout among us were the Westerners, while the most open and curious about my ‘foreign’ lifestyle were from countries to the East.

Had I ever worn a bikini? Had I been to a ‘discotheque’? What was the weather like in my country? Did I know Britney Spears?

Don’t laugh, judging by their giggles, my questions to them were equally silly.

There were just a few Westerners in the school and they all dropped out after a few weeks, complaining about the level of studies. Too much rote learning, too much emphasis on Islamic studies, too little organisation. But they were missing the point. This was a place to learn about life and other peoples lives, not just Arabic language and the Koran.

The girls could study here because it was affordable and the single sex religious orientated classes were deemed permissible by their families back home. A semester at the University of Damascus would not be an option for most.

Religious tolerance

Google Abu Nour mosque and you’ll be told it is a place of tolerance and love for all religions. In truth, not all teachers came across equally tolerant. But the same applies for anyone in society, doesn’t it? The headmaster did have a crack at converting me (a three hour one to one lecture with a gift set of books and CDs), but the religion was never forced upon me. Most of the girls were truly inspirational and incredible role models for the role of Islam in today’s society.

Interestingly, Abu Nour received both praise and criticism for cooperating with the state and other religious leaders. Then, when it was revealed that a suicide bomber in Turkey was a former student of the mosque, the state took a closer say in its day to day management. For security reasons, the face covering niqab was no longer permitted within the walls of the mosque. For this reason, three girls abandoned their studies there.

As I had been warned, I was followed home from classes at least once per week. I never felt threatened, however. This was pre civil war era and as long as you weren’t in serious trouble with the state, the lower rungs of the mukhabarat (secret police) were a harmless lot. I even waved to the guy tailing me one day. He looked so upset that his cover had been blown. So from then onwards I would pretend not to see them and walk around town until they left.

Life lessons

My fellow pupils were, all in all, lovely, interesting people, but it’d be wrong to say I made friends for life. Our paths were too diverse. One Brit made her allegiance to Al Qaeda clear (IS wasn’t well known back then), but the teacher wisely diverted the topic of discussion.

Another (British) pupil looked horrified when see bumped into me one day in the street. Instead of my abaya I was sporting (baggy) jeans with a (loose fitting) long sleeve top. She politely explained that we couldn’t be seen together due to my dress code and rushed away.

I received countless invitations to Uzbekhistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey, but I never followed them up on their kind (and apparently genuine) offers.

I hardly learnt any Arabic and when the semester was over I switched to one-to-one classes in the local dialect. Today I’ve forgotten almost everything. I’d struggle to order a falafel in Arabic. But I do remember how much my time at Abu Nour opened my eyes to other worlds around me. After all, isn’t that what travel and expat life is all about?

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