How I fell in love with Syria

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text ...

Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text God protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember the day I fell in love with Syria. We had got up early to watch dawn rise over the ruins of Palmyra in the desert, and as I sat on a piece of ancient wall, feeling the warm of the sun on my face, I saw a figure approaching out of the desert. It was a little like that scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Omar Sharif shimmers out of the mirage on a camel, except this was a small boy and he was on foot, but he was dressed in full Arab robes, headscarf and all. There was no sound except the bells on some goats nearby. We watched as the boy made his slow, patient way. He was heading straight for us. When he drew level, he greeted us, and said: “Breakfast?”

Confused, we smiled and said yes, we’d love some breakfast, if he knew where we could get it. He nodded and gestured for us to follow him, and padded back out into the desert. He didn’t say another word. We followed, and he led us to a small, ruined house where his family was living, and gave us a breakfast of flat bread hot from the fire, wild honey, fresh curd and tea scented with some desert plant.

I read the news from Syria today. Claims of 151 people killed on Monday. On a single day. Claims of another 119 dead by Tuesday afternoon, 69 of them in Aleppo alone, with reports of more deaths coming in by the hour. And the pictures of carnage and destruction that have become so familiar they barely even register any more, the latest of Aleppo University.

I met a university professor in Syria. We were in the foothills of the mountains, looking for the fortress of the mediaeval Assassins sect, but we couldn’t find it. We stopped to ask for directions, and a man told us he knew the way, but it was hard to explain, so he’d get in and guide us.

We agreed, thinking it must be nearby. It turned out it was some way off. Darkness was falling, but our guide happily sat in the car, directing us along the remote, winding road. As we travelled, he told us he taught at the university in Homs, and was only back in the area for a couple of nights, to see his family. We imagined the family home must lie somewhere along our route, and that he was happy for the lift.

Eventually he conceded that he couldn’t find the fortress in the dark, and we asked where we could drop him. It turned out he had got in the car right outside his family home, and we had been driving for an hour. With the return trip, he had taken two hours to guide a group of complete strangers to an old ruined fort. And when we finally got him back to his family, he brushed aside our mortified apologies and invited us in for dinner.

That was 1996. It was my first visit to the Middle East. I was a student, and had no thought of becoming a journalist. People had warned us not to go to Syria, that it was a hostile country where we would be in danger. The Syria I experienced couldn’t have been more different from the one they described.

Which is not to say all was peace and harmony. Pictures of Hafez Assad, then dictator and father of Syria’s current leader, Bashar Assad, stared down everywhere. The one time some one spoke to us about politics, he checked outside the window even though we were on the 4th floor. The day we flew home, via Beirut, the Israelis had been bombing the suburbs and we could see the smoke streaming as we came into land. But strip away the exotica of my memories of Syria, desert colours and nomads and ancient assassin fortresses, and what remains is the warmth and the hospitality of the people.

We were, after all, citizens of a hostile country, and yet everywhere we went we were treated with kindness and curiosity. When, young idiots that we were, we ran out of fuel miles from a  petrol station near the Euphrates river, locals gave us some from their own jerrycan. When I slipped in a hotel bathroom and broke a shower fitting, the manager waved away my offer to pay for the damage, shrugging that such things happen.

There have been tears in the West over the destruction of the historic Aleppo souqs during the fighting, and yes, they were beautiful. But it is not the souqs I mourn, it is the people.

On that 1996 trip, we met an Iraqi, who invited us to visit Baghdad. We declined, of course, unnerved by the recent first Gulf War. But I think it was that trip to Syria that first set me on the path to become a foreign correspondent, a path that would lead me back to the Middle East, and to Iraq in the terrible days of 2003-4, as the American occupation began to slide towards disaster.

Writing my novel, Burden of the Desert, set in Iraq in those dark times, and remembering my own experiences, I realised how I had watched Iraqi society change before my eyes. When I got to Baghdad in the savagely hot summer of 2003, Iraqis had already lost much of their innocence — inevitably after years of war and sanctions. Yet, in those early days, people were still warm and curious. I travelled all over the country, from Basra to Mosul. I ate in local restaurants everywhere, and walked the streets without fear.

By the time I next visited, in early 2004, that had changed. You couldn’t walk the streets any more. I had to hide my Western features under a headscarf, and eat my meals in the hotel. Most of all, people’s eyes had changed. They had become cold, devoid of any warmth or humanity. As the situation became ever more dangerous, people were concentrating on staying alive, and shutting down everything else. No one had time for a stray foreigner any more.

I remember Iraqi friends telling me there could never be a civil war between Sunni and Shia, that Iraqis were too united for that. And yet civil war came.

And now, it seems, the same is happening in Syria. It’s not just government against rebels. Sunni is turning against Shia, just as in Iraq. And I fear people must be shutting down in the same way, cutting themselves off from outsiders to survive.

The country where I could once count on the kindness of strangers has become so dangerous many hardened war reporters are staying away — and with good reason.

And yet I fear most Westerners will never know it was any different. Syria, they will say, looking at the pictures of death and destruction. Well, it’s a violent place, the Middle East.

They will never know the Syria I knew.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.