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General Information

Libraries

The Asad library is a national library and contains everything that is published in Syria. The library has study rooms and one can apply for a library card. Today, the library also has computers and you can receive and send e-mail from the library. Of course, they also have facilities for photocopying and microfilming.

The French Institute (IFPO), Institut Français du Proche-Orient's Library : Many foreign students in Damascus use the library of IFPO to study. If you are not a student of the French Institute you can apply for a library card. The cost is 500 SP a year. The library is quiet and organized. It has many dictionaries, periodicals, and books in English, French and Arabic. Nothing can leave the building, though. Another library that can be worthwhile is the library of the Goethe Institute.

Apartments

There are many apartments and rooms available in Damascus. It is common among students to rent a room in the Christian quarter of the old city (Bab Touma). A nice room in this area costs about 12,500 SP or $250 a month. Those who can afford to pay more, or have someone to share an apartment with, will find an array of possibilities. In the Bab Mousalla area a three bedroom apartment costs about 15 000 SP a month. In the central part of the city you can find nice two bedroom apartments in Shalaan starting at 20 000 SP a month. Muhajirun, on the side of Mount Qassiuon, is a popular area with students. You may be able to find two bedroom apartments with a nice view for around 20,000 SP. The more adventurous can rent cheap rooms and apartments in the suburban areas. For instance, a room near the Sayyida Zeinab mosque will cost around 3000 SP. In the Christian area of Duella you might be able to find a one bedroom apartment for about 7000 SP.

The most convenient way to find a room or an apartment is to use a real estate agency. There are agencies all over the city -just walk around the area you'd like to live in and look for a real estate office. These agencies charge a finder's fee -anywhere from half- to a full-month's rent. If you are renting for a year, a rule of thumb is that 3% of the apartment's cost should be paid to the agent. They will ask for more, but you should be able to work them down to roughly 3%. The IFPO has a file on the second floor, usually placed on the top of the shelf with recent publications from IFPO, containing apartments for rent.

A real estate agency in Shalaan is the "Maktab ash-Shalaan". The owner's name is Ziad. It's very close to Hafiz Ibrahim Str. (between Abu Romaneh and Hamra streets). His phone number is 00 963 11 333 85 86. Or, if you are in the area, ask for Ziad at the giftshop named Miami. One student recently (2010) wrote me that Ziad had highballed him and was not helpful, but you can always say no. It is the agent's job to work hard for you. You only pay him if you rent. Don't hessitate to say no.

There are a few things to consider before renting an apartment. For instance, is the water cut off at certain hours? If so, does the apartment have a water tank? What kind of heating system does the apartment have? (Damascus winters are cold and windy). Is the landlord going to be a nuisance? What is the plumbing situation (ie Western or Turkish toilets)? If there is a phone, check whether it has a "0" service. Most rental properties don't, which makes it impossible to call abroad, use Western calling cards, or even call local cell phones. Most landlords restrict apartment phones to local calls only. However, you can buy phone cards and place international calls from booths on the street. It's expensive - about $2.00 a minute to the US, for example - but rates go down between 1 and 6 am.

Costs of living and transportation

Basics in Syria are not expensive, although inflation is putting the squeeze on everyone. To eat an ordinary lunch at a decent restaurant will cost no more than 500 SP (often much less). To have a shwarma and a soft drink on the street corner can cost anything from 50 SP to 100 SP. Damascus is getting more "ethnic" food restaurants - Chinese, Indian, Japanese - all the time. Most are either in the large hotels or as independent establishments near them. Most of them serve alcohol but prices tend to be high. Many less-expensive local restaurants don't serve alcohol, but you can find inexpensive restaurants in both the Old City and the center of town that do. Common eateries for those working in the Abou Roumani area near the IFPO are Sit as-Sham and Shamiyyat.

You can get just about anything you need in Damascus, including Western toiletries. You can also get clothes and shoes, although quality and prices vary greatly. Several boutiques carry foreign shoes and clothes, and you can pay up to $100 US for a pair of American jeans or Italian shoes. Damascus also has Syrian-based franchises of several popular Western chains, including Benetton. The clothes are manufactured locally and are expensive by Syrian standards, but much cheaper than Benetton's counterparts in Europe and North America. Benetton is one of the handful of places in Damascus that accepts credit cards.

It's very cheap to take a taxi in Damascus. A ride across town should be around 50 SP or $1. In the evening some drivers tend to turn off the meter. If your cab doesn't have a meter or the driver has turned off the meter, you should negotiate the price before entering the cab. Once you know the prices, you will just hop in and pay it at the other end without hessitating or asking the proper price. Be sure you have the right change. This will help you avoid unnecessary friction. If you forget and you have no change, you're at the driver's mercy. If he demands more or gives you a hard time, simply get out. Syrian taxi drivers will quickly drop their ruse if they think you're going to cause trouble for them. After a while most visitors experiment with the minivans known as "services" that run routes across the city. The destinations are posted on the roof of the van. They're good-value at 10 SP a ride.

To get around Syria is easy and affordable as well. You can reach most places by bus. It is also cheap to travel by bus outside of Syria; a bus to Beirut only costs about 250 SP. If you prefer to travel by taxi, a seat in a taxi to Beirut is 500 SP and to Amman about 800 SP. Busses and taxis to Lebanon and Beirut leave from the bus station in Baramke, around the corner from the old campus of the University.

It's also fairly affordable to rent a car in Syria. There are many car rentals around, just be sure and check that the car and papers are in order. Also make sure that you have insurance. One good car rental is the Global village in Muhajirun. It's not the cheapest, but it is reliable. The owner's name is Yaser Alolabi. His phone number is 00 963 11 332 73 98 and fax: 00 963 11 372 25 63. He also has a homepage at www.wqs-globalvillage.com and e-mail: yaser@wqs-globalvillage.com

Communications, e-mail, mobile phones

Communications in Syria are developing rapidly. It's easy to call abroad from the phone booths in the streets. Regarding e-mail, Damascus is full of Internet cafes. It's 100-120 SP an hour for computer use, and most places also have printers and up-to-date Microsoft software should you need to do some work.

A word on accessing the Internet from your home: you may meet Syrians who kindly offer to let you use their accounts and passwords to do your e-mailing from home. This is easy if you are going to stay around. It is also possible to get an account at home if you are going to be staying for a while.

Cell-phones are a must in Damascus. If you don't already have a phone, you can buy one cheaply and get an identity - sim card - for the phone. Most people buy cards with minutes on them. It is easy. Go into any phone shop and ask.