MY SUMMER IN SYRIA
The summer of 2008 was probably one of my best to date. I was studying Fine Art at University and from March I spent 6 happy months studying in Turkey. We had so much fun I didn’t want to go back and I was keen to explore some of the neighbouring regions and East was what interested us the most.
Having not been exposed to much Muslim culture so far in my life, living in Istanbul a city with bridges the West with the East was an interesting place to start. Studying at Art school where you are going to get some of the most socially engaged students who had more piercings, red hair and alternative views than many of people I had ever met. An interesting dynamic where every morning we were woken up by the mosques at 5am and where a high proportion of society wore a headdress and was extremely conservative.
So my friend Tom and I travelled South-East down across the rolling Turkish landscape. We spent a week in a tiny seaside town where we got bitten alive by mosquito’s and did very little planning of the next part of our journey.
So as we got to the border of Syria we had very little idea of what to expect. When we got to Aleppo we were surprised to find a very modern hostel with your usual hippy travellers from Holland, France and USA all with their various stories and messy locks of hair. We threw ourselves into some day trips, keen to explore what Syria had on offer.
I was surprised to find on our first day trip to the ruins of St. Christopher where I was shocked at the quality of the ruins as well as the amazing views and colours of the yellow and green landscape that seemed to go on for miles. Tom, I said, I think this is one of the best landscape colours I have ever seen.
The next day we spent some time navigating near the city we went to the citadel at the top of the city and the famous mosques as well as the bazaar. While in the bazaar we met some interesting characters. They were more interested in Tom than me, but as it turned out later this was because most of the men who worked there were actually gay and talked about the bazaar as a metaphor for life, saying, you never know what is under the sea.
Onwards from Aleppo we went to Homs and then Hama. Hama is where most of the fighting is happening now as well as where many fundamentalists fought in the 1980’s. With this reputation you might be surprised that we loved this place and the people so much we came back three times! This city was covered in large wooden watermills and was beautiful from the outset. It’s in the middle of the country and often a good stop in-between Aleppo and Damascus.
When we arrived a kind gentleman took my suitcase and walked Tom and myself across the city and said he knew the best place for us to say. This place was at the top of many flights of stairs and when we got to the top we waited in the waiting area with cups of tea and the football in the background. It was there we met Abdulla. Abdulla was the highlight of our trip. One eye rolling into the side of his face, he was an interesting but adorable looking character. He was passionate about sports, that summer the cricket was on and it had just been the World Cup. Where we really bonded was late night backgammon games where every time I won he would get someone to run down and buy us ice-cream. We loved Abdulla and he treated us like kings and we had the best time when we stayed with him. He gave us little cards with Arabic on and was keen to have us learn some of the language during our trip. Inshallah.
During our time in Hama we explored the various parts of the city, the artistic courts full of artists who we sat and enjoyed tea and speaking about art and drinking wine. We enjoyed the market place where we never went hungry everyone saying welcome and giving us food to try.
One day trip we went to Palmyra on the way were visited several other sites. One place we went to was a hill with an old castle on the top. Tom feeling ill, I pushed on and walked to the top to meet a shepherd who took my hand to show me all the best spots to take photos with my SLR and asked me for tea in his little hut. We could not hang around but I promised we would be back! Although we could not communicate with words!
We went to the Palmyra ruins the most impressive I have ever seen, far vaster than anything in Greece and it made me wonder why I had never even heard of them before.
Then next day one of the most powerful moments of the trip happened. I said to Tom we need to find the shepherd and have a cup of tea with him, I had promised and felt it would be an amazing experience after he had been so kind. We went in search and got completely lost as we had no idea where exactly we had met him. We got picked up on the side of the road by another man. This time I was sick and he had two rolling eyes. He spoke good English and asked if we wanted to come back to meet his family and see his house.
Slightly worried we accepted in any case!
We got to his sisters place and she made us shower and change (I was not covered enough) and then we sat on the floor. They prayed every few hours and although a humble room they cooked us a massive feast. At one point the sister kept hitting my head. I asked why is she doing this. The brother said, she is saying the more you eat, the more you love us. He spoke about how he wanted to show us they are normal people, they are not fundamentalists, that they pray but they are good people.
We were offered a place to sleep but worried Abdulla would want to know where we were he gave us a lift home and we thanked him for their kindness. I particularly remember the beauty of the sister maybe one year older than me at the time, she had four children the eldest was a cheeky madam with blonde hair that was uncovered when they were inside.
It was an amazing experience and we had many other amazing moments in the trip. We went on to Damascus, saw the Syrian coast line and then got the bus into Lebanon where more amazing experiences happened including not having Lebanese money when arriving so we were attempting to walk miles to Beirut when a man picked us up showed us 5 different hotels until we could find now we could afford and wanted nothing in return. We also meet many young people who were keen to speak and we even had a cosmopolitan night out with vodka cocktails and live DJ’s in a huge roofless club with some very beautiful women.
I now live in Australia, far away from home and the Middle-East and far away from this very sad conflict. What can I do about it? I am not sure. But I have been meaning to share this experience for a very long time as the Syria that the world is seeing now is very different from the country we saw for those few weeks during the summer of ’08.
Some further interesting reading: