Welcome to my blog. I write about fitting in, sticking out, and missing the motherland as a serial foreigner.

Flashback Friday: Adventures in paying a phone bill in Syria

There was this one time in Damascus when Jeremy and I had dinner at the phone bill lady's house in Damascus. Does that even happen anywhere else besides Syria? It seemed so normal at the time, but kind of weird in retrospect.

We would see her maybe once every two months when we went into the phone office to pay our bill. Out of all the ladies who worked in the office, she was always the most helpful. The first time we went to pay our bill, we had no idea where to go, what line to stand in, what procedure to follow, etc. I think all the other workers just didn’t feel like dealing with some dumb foreigners at that moment (it could get very hectic in the office since, in a stroke of organizational genius, all the bills in a particular area fell due at the same time). She was very patient and showed us the ropes. Jeremy and I remained dumb foreigners in many respects, but at least we figured out how to pay our phone bill, thanks to her.

You see, the phone-bill-paying system they had going in Syria was quite interesting (you can see from the above picture what kind of infrastructure we were dealing with).
Unlike in America, it couldn't be done over the phone, by mail, or on the internet. It simply had to be done in person, meaning you had to take time off work, school, or whatever else was going on in your life to physically show up at the office between the hours of 9 and 2 on weekdays, 9 to 1 on Saturdays. (Come to think of it, this was the way most things were done in Syria – in person, at the convenience of the business, liable to change on a whim. Basically, everything there ran like the DMV here.) Also, at least that we were ever able to figure out, there was no way to know when the bill would come due ahead of time. Your phone would just stop working. We found out later that our landlady was supposed to tell us, but although she insisted on being invasive and involved in many aspects of our life, telling us when our phone service would be cut off was not one of them.

After a few months of seeing the phone bill lady every time we paid our bill, she invited us over to her apartment. She lived in a suburb outside of Damascus, on the road to Beirut. She spoke very little English, but her husband, to our surprise, spoke moderately well. It turns out he used to sell concessions during intermission at a movie theater in Damascus. While he wasn’t working, he watched the movies (all American, in English), and practiced the words and phrases he heard. He told us his favorite movie was “Die Hard,” which gives you an idea of the caliber of the American movies they show over there, and also of the kind of colloquial phrases he picked up.

What a nice husband and wife they were. I really wish she could have been there to make one phone bill experience a little more pleasant.

It was during Ramadan, so I had a reduced working schedule. This made it convenient for me to be the one to go and pay the phone bill. Before I continue, let me explain something: our internet usage in Damascus was billed to our phone line. We chose to do it that way instead of hassling with the pre-paid card system. Thus, it was not unheard of for our phone bill to come to about 3000 lira (60 bucks) for the two or three months in the billing cycle. It wasn't a particularly astronomical amount, but I mention it because a normal, non-internet-included phone bill usually comes to about 150 to 250 lira (3 to 5 dollars).

It must have been the last day to pay without permanently losing your phone line, because when I went in to deal with our bill, the office was absolutely packed. Also, they were closing early because of Ramadan. So everyone – the workers and the customers – was in an absolute frenzy to finish up and go home. Long lines from each payment window stretched all the way outside the building. People were jostling for position in the different "lines" (anyone who's been to the Middle East knows there's really no such thing). As I approached, I could tell that there were different lines for different areas, but the signs explaining the system were posted way up front, out of my view. So I chose one and hoped that the long wait ahead of me wouldn’t end in being told to stand at the end of a completely different line.

The guy standing behind me in line was particularly antsy. I have no idea what his damage was – there was no way the line could move any faster, and his pushing and making exasperated comments about how long it was taking were not helping the already tense situation. As we got closer to the payment window, he found an interesting way to amuse himself: listening to the worker tell each customer the amount due for their phone bill, and then re-announcing it to everyone in the crowd in a loud voice. What joy was mine.

So far, the amounts were all small: 100 lira, 150 lira, 250 lira, 200 lira, etc. Still, the guy behind me felt the need to repeat each amount loudly, making sure everyone around could hear. I was really, really dreading my turn at the window. I silently hoped that when it was my turn, the worker would assume I didn’t speak Arabic and write the amount down, instead of saying it out loud. Alas, I was not so lucky.

Sure enough, the worker told me, in Arabic, in an audible, clear voice that my bill was 3000 lira. I thought the guy behind me was going to have a heart attack. He faltered, and repeated the amount to himself several times quietly before letting everyone else know about it, too. I was so embarrassed. He kept on raving about it the whole time I was at the window handing over the money, getting my receipt, etc. As I walked away, and it was finally his long-awaited turn, he was still marveling about it, inserting some choice comments in Arabic that I couldn’t understand (I’m sure it was about the foreign girl who must talk on the phone ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, FOR THREE MONTHS in order to run up a phone bill of 60 dollars).

I never went back after that. We decided that it would be Jeremy’s job to pay the phone bill from then on. And that was just fine with me.

Disaster averted

Expectations vs. reality