Everyone on this trip who has walked with me will tell you I’ve led them astray at least once. My favorite companions, many times. I think my sense of confidence fools people.
I just walk, whether I know the way or not.
First, I believe “lost” is usually just a state of mind. I might not be where I want, but I’m usually somewhere interesting and I’ve met such great people through wondering.
Second, I have confidence that I’ll figure out where we are or how to get where we want around the next bend. (Really annoying to companions who think we’re lost.)
Third there’s a safety net in the cities we’re in. Almost always, there are taxis I could jump in and say my destination or people nearby I could ask.
The following anecdotes are in honor of going where you don’t know the way.
Today we arrived in Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, north of the capital, Damascus.
After ditching my bags, I rushed out of our hotel in search of a water bottle. Usually sold at every street corner and food stand, I expected this to be a quick errand.
I walked past store after store peering in coolers and asking. One guy poured me a glass of Seven-Up, and another filled an ancient looking bottle with tap water. Both I apologetically refused (It’s really rude to refuse drinks when someone offers here).
A boy on a bicycle stopped to shake my hand and held on until I pulled my hand away.
Though occasionally awkward, when someone offers me their hand politely or curiously, I alway shake it. So often when we, as Americans, walk down the street here, however conservatively we’re dressed, we’re a spectacle. A handshake is an easy way to communicate, level, assure and offer respect. Valuable in a part of the world we have screwed up relations pretty badly.
After many attempts, a man told me in English to walk down a street a little further.
At the next stand I stopped at the vendor handed over what I coveted. It took the form of a dirty bottle of Canadian Dry brand water. Despite the dirt on the bottle, the top was sealed. I happily paid 25 Syrian pounds–about 50 cents, for the 1.5 liter bottle.
I remembered my way back because each stand I passed, each old building, each group of men hanging outside, was memoriable.
I traced my way back through the maze of winding streets, some so small no cars could pass. A group of girls I passed minutes before ran to me, asked my name and one by one shook my hand, telling me theirs. A veiled woman who looked about my age looked on from a doorway and smiled.
Another man pointed to me–I thought he wanted me to take a picture–he was holding a box, he opened it and a bird popped its head out. His friend made the universal money gesture–sorry I’m not buying your bird guys.
A man cooking meat who I had asked for water waved and smiled kindly, asking where I was from. He handed me a purple drink over the counter.
Tired of refusing things and not wanting to be rude, I took it and sipped. It was delicious fresh mulberry.
We talked for a few minutes as he cooked customers meet on demand.
He said he loved America, asked where I was from and of course mentioned Obama. (They really believe in him hear guys–let’s not disappoint!)
I thanked him for the drink he wanted no payment for and wandered back to the hotel.
Later I wondered to the souk (market).
I ate the best ice cream of my life and asked for directions.
Five minutes later, down the road, the same man checked up on me–shoes this way, clothes that, he told me.
A few minutes later I ducked in a bookstore because a young tourist police, also eating ice cream, who offered to “be my brother” was tailing me a little too obviously.
I would have been concerned, but since it’s Syria, I was just amused.
Successfully in the souk, vendors of Aleppo were not like any others I’ve encountered here or Egypt.
The prices they offered were so low I didn’t haggle. The people were relaxed, talked and smiled.
Most I talked to were Armenian–many fled here in 1915 during the genocide in Serbia.
Back at the hotel, another student said it was because it’s because in Syria it’s illegal for the vendors to solicit tourists.
And, I found my way back easily by running into Nick grabbing falafel–he knew just how to return to the hotel. Which was right around the corner. I walked in a huge loop.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J. R. R. Tolkien
Wow, mountains. They were basically the first thing that caught my eye in Syria.
Part of Damascus lies on a mountain, which turns into a sandy bare top.
You can walk all the way up–though people usually take a taxi, Waddah (?) an English professor involved in Damascus University’s international program and our unofficial guide, told us.
You just can’t go to the very top where all those poles are.
A Syrian American Northeastern student, Omar, confirmed our desire to hike the mountain was pretty strange.
Despite, we were determined–we set out for the “purple flowers” the landmark Wadah said we should begin our hike from.
Not as clear cut as from his window, once hiking, there was no clear path.
On our first attempt we skirted barb wire and were shooed by a group of men hollering in Arabic high above us. On our second a military officer climbed down from the cliffs above us.
He didn’t speak much English but his message was clear.
He pointed to the road below us and said the mountain was dangerous.
We can go up the mountain following the road? I asked.
He watched us until we were safely on the road below.
After grabbing some delicious ice cream, we headed along the road leading in a winding path up the mountain.
Apparently 4 white people walking up a hilly road was quite a spectacle.
All types of people yelled out of cars, honked and waved to us and some guys offered us a ride.
Maybe just the norm in Syria, men dressed in military clothes were everywhere.
Were they hiding something in the trees, we wondered. They popped out of the mountain to point us onward.
They told us to walk on the other side of the road and hurried us on if we loitered to take pictures.
At one point, when no one was visible, we heard a cell phone ringing from the brush beside us.
At the top a clump of cars, waiting taxis, couples, families with kids and an expansive view of Damascus greeted us.
We saw our hotel–a red light to the right. So much unexplored territory stretched out in every direction from it.
10 days is not enough to see this city.
PS– Hey NUHOC, Northeastern’s outdoor club–I thought of you guys. I hope Acadia was awesome!
Originally Syrian territory, Israel captured Golan Heights in the 1967 fighting against Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. In a 1973 surprise attack Syria failed to regain Golan. In 1981 Israel annexed the portion they retain to this day. The United Nations, among other states, bodies and non-government groups, has ruled the Israeli annexation illegal. (I’ll attach the links as soon as I have decent internet.)
The beauty and obvious tragedy conjure emotions, willed or not.
Approaching in our bus I kept thinking how people I know would react to what I was seeing. Would it change them? I wondered who saw it too–who was aware.
We saw fields and scattered tents, our guide Osama, told us were homes of Gypsies. I saw more garlic cloves in one place than I ever imagined. Who would want to live in a war zone? Why stay in such a tense place?
Between the rumble of a destroyed community, cows graze and bright red flowers sprout through dry green grass.
This place wasn’t destroyed during one of the wars, our guides told us and professor Sullivan later confirmed. The buildings were crushed by the Israeli soldiers as they withdrew as part of the “peace process” orchestrated by Henry Kissinger in 1974. According to our guides Israeli soldiers used the hospital below for military practice.
We got out of our bus and stood in front of the hospital. We climbed up the crumbling steps and into the rumble inside. Up stairs, through gaping doorways, up a rickety metal stairwell and finally to the roof.
“It’s a matter of dignity,” Golan’s mayor said describing Syria’s insistence on regaining the full territory “No free individual can accept that his land be occupied. We’re doing our best to capture it. We hope Obama would understand the nature of this conflict.”
National Union of Syrian Students (NUSS), the same group whose president we met the other day, hosted our trip.
There were a couple graduate students and some older former member whose role was not clear. “What would you do if someone did this to you,” one of the girls asked me walking through the remains of the hospital pictured above.
The students were passionate and angry.
We struggled. We’re journalists here, yes? Should we keep our mouths shut, be objective?
These students craved answers, substance. Aren’t we here to dialogue too?
At one point I asked one of the young woman if she knew other Americans and she’d only met one or two and had one British friend.
Whether willingly or not, we represent more than ourselves here. The questions people ask us our not directed only at us but our government, the representative democracy we’re supposed to have, hope and reassurance that Americans don’t hate Syrians, Arabs or Muslims.
From the United Nations buffer zone, I zoomed in on a “Welcome to Israel,” sign. (Picture coming, can’t upload with internet now)
The flag, lying just beyond the destroyed buildings and land mines, which have killed thousands of children and animals, is a slap in the face to Syrians.
Think of the space and lack-of–in the United States we consider our enemies “terrorists,” once communists, Germans or Japanese. Concepts, seas away, not visible in the same sense.
Now think how unlikely it is for individuals from one-side to cross to another. They just stare. Imagine. Build up resentment.
Do you know the story about the World War II soldiers who started talking during a ceasefire?
Look for many more pictures and commentary from Golan in the next couple days–having internet issues now. Tomorrow we’re traveling north to Crusader castle ruins and then Aleppo, the second biggest city in the state. Should be an adventure =)
“The Union fights for the liberation of all occupied Arab territories and the expulsion of the Israeli enemy from Palestine, the occupied Syrian Golan and all occupied Arab territories from the Israeli nazism and racism,” reads the informational pamphlet which, greeted us this morning at The National Union of Syrian Students.
“The Union works for qualifying students for building up the society of progress and socialism…..It has been able through its distinguished relations with student and youth, regional and international organizations to effectively contribute to the explanation of our national Pan-Arab causes represented by student struggle against imperialism, Zionism and reactionary forces.
Israeli nazism? Socialism? Hmm….
“Can you explain what Israeli Nazism is?” Sean Leviashvili from our group, asked.
It was our third day in Syria and we were meeting with President of the National Union Syrian Students, Anar Saatti.
Like most of our activities here, this one was planned for us and we knew little about it before arriving.
Saatii didn’t want to talk about Israeli nazism. I know you talked a lot about politics yesterday, he told us.
“I don’t want to say extreme,” I followed up, but the tone of the pamphlet isn’t exactly conciliatory.” If the pre-condition of Golan Heights is met…where do students stand? …Is peace possible–a resolution with Israel desirable?
He agreed the language was non-conciliatory “If what was written here was different we’d be in trouble with our students. We have masses of students who have lost relatives….Even after peace is reached it would take the us some time to talk in a tone different than here.”
Whether to take pictures of the praying was a dilemma. I chose to because first, it is a popular tourist mosque–there are thousands of more private mosques where tourists, and possible any non-Muslims would not be welcomed during prayer. Also, I strongly believe in the power of information–Islam is widely understood. The people in these picture are regular men with jobs and lives who simply happen to practice Islam. They dress differently and scatter to back to their lives when prayer ends.
With such as diverse population and regional differences, Americans know generalizing is often useless. The Middle East, and countries within, are no different.
Is Syria a conservative country?
Some people are.
Islam and “family values” may dominate life, yet there are always exceptions. Other viewpoints.
The major market is filled with shops selling all kinds of lingerie and customs.
Women veiled and scarfed walk in and out with tourists.
Life here is just as multi-faceted as anywhere else.
First, the rumors are true.
We don’t have Facebook.
It’ll be Ok. Really. Just email me at email@example.com, if you’re missing my updates.
Second, the food is delicious. I devoured a big green salad down the street from our hotel. Sharwma we bought at the souk for lunch (just over U.S. $1!) was less greasy than what I found in Egypt. We topped it off with ice cream rolled in pistachios–the production of watching us was a. Watching the men smash the pistachios was equally exciting as eating the ice cream.
And the unknown, i.e. absolutely everthing. Despite saying I had no idea what to expect. I’m surprised. I expected Syria to be another version of Egypt. It’s not.
The air feels fresh and a large part of Damascus lies on a mountain. I haven’t spent much time downtown yet, but it doesn’t seem nearly as crowded as Cairo. And or course, it’s much smaller.
When we visited the largest market in Syria we were not harassed as we were in Egypt’s Khan el Khalili. Some vendors greeted, “Welcome to Syria,” but no one followed us down the street demanding we buy goods or calling us names like spice girls or offering millions of camels. (Camels are traditional wedding dowries in exchange for daughters.)
Similarly, the cab drivers don’t yell and stop automatically–waiving one down is easy, just surprising after Egypt where they lined up for us.
Our guess is it’s because people don’t rely on tourism here, as they do in Misr. (Egypt in Arabic)
Also interesting, Canadian goods and little Canadian flags are everywhere. Wherever we go people’s first guess is that we’re French or Canadian. The cab drivers I’ve told I’m American were friendly and curious to know what I was doing here. Many people speak a little French, less seem to speak English. Though the dialect is different, I’m enjoying using my Arabic more than in Egypt.
On our first night our cab driver, (who took us Town Center Mall (ahh!) instead of downtown, would hardly utter a world to us. Did he not understand Asha and my Arabic? Was he ignoring us? When Nick Mendez pointed out pigeons flying around a man on a roof he jumped to life. “Police,” he said.
In Egypt security forces followed us everywhere. They carried big guns and often demanded space in our vans. When our groups subdivided we were amused as they pondered who to, very visibly, follow.
They never talked to us–would the Egyptian government really assign spies who couldn’t understand us? Despite tell-tale lack of coordination, it’s hard to believe.
In our debrief this evening we pondered where the government’s people are in Syria. Samantha Snuggard said she met an American in the supermarket who told her we should know there are always at least four plain clothes agents on the street who know who we are.
Thanks to Kimberly Jones’s class–Human Rights and in the Middle East, I’ve read about Syria arbitrarily arresting, detaining and torturing citizens.
Unlike Egypt where some openly criticize their, and most (I’ve met) will at least broach the subject, here people will not utter a word beyond national rhetoric. We love Syria we love our country, we want you to too, our tour guide, Osama said to us on the bus from the airport.
In response to a question Denis asked, another of our guides described the situation aptly. “Nothing is allowed here and nothing is forbidden.”
In the United States we hear all the time about Arabs, other skin-tones and minorities facing scrutiny at airports. I’ve heard open-minded and well-traveled people comment when an Arab or someone dressed in an abaya or headscarf boards their plane.
In the Middle East there is no room for these irrational fears. At the airport Rachel and Edwin (our TA for the trip) both marveled at the diversity of the people around us. A woman in a flowing orange dress stood by the escalator and a family, Asha guessed, of southern Indians wearing beautifully embroidered caps were head of us at the passport check line.
When I got aboard our flight to Syria an old woman was sitting in my seat. She didn’t speak English but she showed me her ticket. Her ticket was a seat that didn’t exist on the plane. An attendant came and ripped up her ticket and she walked toward the front of the plane–to where I don’t know.
After some more communicative gesturing I took my seat next to an Iraqi man and his friend’s son.
In the midst of writing that last sentence, a commotion erupted a few rows back. I man dressed in white with a gold embroidered hat was yelling Arabic words I couldn’t understand. Flight attendants and others were yelling back. Slightly panicked, I shut my laptop, ready to hop off the plane in a second. The man sitting next to me smiled–and gestured his hands–nothing don’t worry. No problem? I asked in Arabic. No problem he agreed, clearly amused by the commotion.
The Iraqi’s name was Abdu and the boy was Amr. They and more family and friends were returning to Baghdad from Saudi Arabia. He took out his camera phone and eagerly showed me pictures from their hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca to see the Kaaba. The Hajj Is the fifth pillar of Islam and required of all faithful Muslims capable of making it. Abdu clicked through pictures of worshippers prostrated before the black stone, his family and friends, all dressed in the traditional white. He showed me his Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stamp in his passport. I was quite jealous.
Communicating anything substantive was hard, but I couldn’t not ask him about Iraq. How is it? What do you think of Americans? His face grew somber, he lost his kind smile. I had trouble understanding him but pretty sure, between gestures and words he said he had a lot and now he has little. We destroyed things. ‘What do you expect me to say’? He clearly conveyed.
I felt awful–guilty. I didn’t have words or eloquence to discuss anything in Arabic. I was so lucky, an America traveling, typing on my laptop on the plane with no real idea what these people had and are going through.
A older woman sitting diagonally in front of me caught my eye. She looked at me staring. It wasn’t a mean stare, more so of wrongdoing. I stared back for a moment, unsure what to do, not wanting to ignore her. Finally I extended my hand. “Ahlan, ismee Lily.” (Hi, my name’s Lily) She took my hand. She didn’t say anything but smiled slightly.
Later, when reopened my laptop she gave me a worried look again. Abdu did too. “Up,” I gestured with my hand and, “down.” It’s fine now–we only have to turn electronics off during takeoff and landing.
I showed Abdu and Amr pictures of my brothers, Sam and Grayson, sister Cady, parents and Cultural Kitchen class at Hosteling International. He wanted me to listen to his music and gave me a headphone to put in my ear. It was the Koran.I offered him one of mine, but he wasn’t willing to part with the Koran for a earful of Noah and the Whale. “Allah,” he said, pointing upwards.
Safely on the ground in Damascus, I gave him my name. the web address for our group blog. Internet? he asked, moving his figures in typing motions. Aiya. (yes) He smiled and said he would go to the web address.
I’m dashing to put up these updates because a plane is prepping for us at the Cairo Airport.
None of us know what to expect in Syria. Everyone tells us the food will be amazing and we don’t think we’ll have facebook. We’ve been assured by journalists here we’ll be able to write. The government is welcoming us as guests in Damascus and has planned trips to the Golan Heights and Aleppo.
Thanks for reading my blog thus far.
Stay stuned for my perspective as we venture forward =)
A couple days a go a few of us interviewed young women affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood for stories we are writing. One of the young woman Sondos, invited us out for dinner, along with her sister, Marwa.
They showed us unbelievable kindness and welcome, put up with endless questions (this was not supposed to be an interview!) showed us how to tied headscarves and encouraged a photo shoot. To be fair, they asked their fair share of questions in return. These are the types of friendships which truly lead to cultural understanding. Marwa puts the hijab (headscarf on Rachel). Headscarves are a sign of modesty. They are also a huge part of the culture. Most Muslim women in Egypt where them out of choice. At least here, it’s as much a fashion statement as a profession of religiosity.
Thanks Marwa and Sondos! I look forward to seeing you when I return to Egypt.
Last night our group got all snazzed up to visit the Arab League.
The stories coming, but here’s a picture for the interim: