In light of recent events I have been thinking a lot about Syria. I travelled through Syria in 2010 just month before it all blew up. When we go travel we want to remember every bit of the experience. We take photos, write diaries, buy souvenirs. Ultimately some experiences will have a lasting effect on us and others will be forgotten or obscured. We create a narrative that contains all the funniest, most breathtaking or even most frightening moments. We remember certain people or places better than others. So this is how I remember Syria.
I crossed over the border from Turkey. I was on a bus and the driver was racing through the stony desert like a maniac. Arabic music blasting, habibi this and habibi that. When we arrived in Aleppo I checked into a hostel. It was a wonderful place. I remember there was a rooftop area, a big library and a computer that everyone could use. Not facebook though, that was forbidden in Syria. It was a place where travellers from all over the world met and exchanged information about the journey. I met a guy that had cycled all the way from South Africa, and another one who had walked from France to spend Christmas mass in Bethlehem. I wandered through the Souq, where people were selling fine fabrics, soaps, silver, spices. It was a loud and crowded place, full of wonderful and strange smells. I sat in a tea house with an old man. I think he said he used to live in Germany at some point. He used to be an Engineer. He said that Syria wasn’t just one thing. That tourists had this image of a backwards Muslim country, which it wasn’t. It was very much a secular country with many religions living together. There was many shades of gray. When I asked him about Assad he went kind of quiet and then, like so many people I met in the middle east, he said he wished Saddam was still there.
In Hama I was sitting in the park looking out on the famous water wheels. I talked to a guy that sat down on the bench with me. He wanted to practice his English. He told me he had two wives. One stays home and watches the children and one goes to work. When I asked him if he just sits in the park he laughed. He wanted to find another wife and when I asked him if two aren’t enough trouble he laughs again. He said he needed to safe some more money before he could pay another dowry. When I asked him about the massacre he said the massacre was something people don’t talk about. In 1982 Hafez al-Assad (father of the current Assad) made an example out of Hama, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, and besieged it for three weeks. Thousands of innocent people died, but Assad had scotched the Muslim uprising.
I went to Krak de Chevalier, a wonderful Crusaders castle. At the ticket booth guides offered their services. I roamed around the castle by myself. It wasn’t like a castle in Europe, with barriers and forbidden places. I could go anywhere, touch anything, climb up walls and dive down in the belly of the castle. I roamed around the cellar trying to find my way with a tiny torch, when a British History buff with an Indiana Jones fedora emerged from behind a column. Inevitably he showed me around the castle and brought it to live with his enthusiastic explanations. He tells me that the castle was in such good condition because a man named Saladin tricked the Crusaders into leaving it. He simply made them believe that it was time to go home. I marveled at the kitchen area that looked like it had never been abandoned at all. There was big grinding stones and humongous ovens to make bread for 2000 people. Apparently they had provisions for a full 5 years in there. Recently the Castle has been a last refuge to the rebels and has been damaged last year when the government forces recaptured the area. No more tour guides offering their services at the entrance. No more taxis outside the castle. No more gift shop. Instead this.
I went to Palmyra. It once was a thriving Oasis at the crossroads of Persian and Roman Empires. with an amazing central street lined by colonnades, a theater, a big temple and a castle. The ancient city was eventually abandoned, when trade routes and politics changed. I checked into a hostel and I get to know Sadiq, who worked there. We sit around with the other travellers and listen to music. There was a lot of smoking and tea drinking. One of the travellers had gone further east, a bit off the usual tourist track. He tells us how he had been questioned by the police. They wanted to know what he was doing in this area, who he was visiting. After a day of interrogation he was let go. He told us of a Syrian guy who was held by the police for two weeks because he had Heavy Metal music on his computer. Sadiq didn’t want to talk about Assad. People were not talking about their government. If I asked questions, they always seemed to look over their shoulder and then appease me by saying everything was just swell. We drank more tea. I went to explore the ruins. I just started walking through the desert. Here and there. It was so quiet you could hear the sand being blown around by the wind. In the evening the sky was dyed in orange that bled all over the desert. Threads of light linger in the sky and color the clouds now pink, then purple. I was walking home through the ruins, whilst dark blue slowly took over the firmament and the stars came out. It was truly a magical place. I walked around that desert for some days. And I was smoking and listening to music with my new friend. Sadiq took me out to his fathers garden. They had a lot of cats and olive trees and a fantastic view over the ruins. We were drinking more tea. Desert people are very hospitable. It is a necessity, dictated by the surrounding land and it has become part of their culture.
Now looking back on it it seems like a dream. Like you loose yourself in this barren desert it dissolves your memory. How did I get from Palmyra to Mar Moussa? There was a guy who drove me. A friend of Sadiq. We stopped at this town where they still spoke Aramaic. It was called Maalula. Houses were piled on top of each other all clinging to the hills. We saw an old monastery and then walked through a gorge to an old church. He spoke only a few words of English, but sometimes language isn’t just words so we had a great day. Then we drove out to the desert. He dropped me of at monastery of Mar Mousa, a magical place of tranquility and stillness, built upon a cliff overlooking the desert close to Damascus. I had to climb many, many stairs to get up there and then, right at the tiny door that led into the main building, I ran into Paolo. He smiled at me, pointed at the miniature door and said “Welcome. It’s through here”. It was my only real encounter with the founder of this wonderful place, but I remember that I thought he was a shiny person. Like he was oozing complacency. There was a big balcony with the most breathtaking view of the desert. I was immediately ambivalent about leaving. It was a place to clear the mind. We helped with the gardening, cooking and cleaning. I remember I most enjoyed the incredible silence that surrounded the place. Once I hiked through the hills behind the monastery. I climbed all the way through a rocky canyon and saw an amazing hazy desert sunset. On the way back I stumbled down the mountain, trying to find the way with my little torch, when I ran into two of the monks. They just snubbed at me and asked me to turn of my torch, so we could enjoy the beautiful night. I remember I felt silly about having such little faith. And it was a beautiful night. The darkness and the quiet wrapped around us and there was a million stars twinkling above us. Suddenly finding the way was just a matter of setting one foot in front of the other. There was people from all over the world at the monastery. A group of Muslim students from Damascus arrived to spend the week of Eid al-Adha at the monastery. It is an Islamic festival in memory of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, and these students had come to a Christian monastery to celebrate. There is many shades of gray in the desert. I would like to think that today Mar Mousa is still an undisturbed fortress of calm perched on a rock in the Syian desert, but I think the silence has been disturbed for good. (Read about the abduction of Paolo Dall’Oglio here).
I left the monastery because my tooth broke in half and I had to see a dentist in Damascus. I found myself driving through the city, sympathizing with the sheep that were kept in the enclosures along the streets and that were going to be butchered the next day as part of the Eid al-Adha celebration. My dentist was educated in France and Germany and he spoke four languages fluently. Everybody at the dentist was especially nice to me because I was all by myself getting a dental implant in Syria. Between visits to the dentist I explored this strange and diverse city. I remember me and some other travelers going out to a bar and drinking a bottle of wine. The area was busy with local youth smoking hookas and getting ready to party. There was girls wearing tight jeans and low cut tops with their hijabs. I was told they are called hijababes. The veil being more of a fashion accessory than anything else. There was adds for KFC everywhere. Just imagine one moment you eat your KFC and then you are not anymore, because KFC has left your country for a lack of chicken.
I don’t claim to understand the conflict in the middle east. What I do understand though is that it is important to remember that Syria was full of people living normal lives. Going to the dentist and eating KFC. People working in hostels and people with beautiful olive gardens. There was people meeting in the desert. Now there is a refugee crisis. Syria is home to all our heritage. What I remember of my trip through Syria is the amazingly friendly people I met and the wonderful historic sites I have seen. History comes to live not only when you met an Indiana Jones wannabe in the cellar of a castle. The spirits of the past are part of these old stones and we can feel it when we walk amongst them. History begins with memory and if those heritage sites are destroyed the narrative changes. There will be less shades of gray in the desert.