“Are you sure we don’t need to take out beheading insurance?”
I laughed off Andy’s sarcastic pre-trip remark but Syria does have a rather dubious reputation in the U.S. as an Israel hating, terrorism financing pariah state. While I don’t seek out troubled, dangerous places to visit (I promise, Mom), I do love traveling to overlooked, underrated destinations. Cuba, Burma, Iran? Sign me up. Do they have authoritarian, oppressive governments? Sure. But one can disapprove of a country’s government and still admire its people, its history, its culture, its natural beauty.
I had done enough research to know I wanted to see Damascus but I was cautious enough not to want to go alone. Despite his decapitation-related reservations, Andy agreed to accompany me. While I was happy to have a friend with me on the trip I was pleasantly surprised to discover I didn’t need a male chaperone. If the morning shoppers in Al-Hamidiyah Souq were bothered by an unmarried, English speaking white woman, gleefully taking photos of soft pyramids of brightly colored spices, they didn’t let on. Despite what I can only assume have been decades of heavily anti-American propaganda by the Assad government, everyone we met was genuinely warm, friendly and welcoming. Not a head-endangering scimitar in sight.
On our first morning in Damascus, Andy and I visited the dazzlingly beautiful stone and marble triumph that is the Umayyad Mosque. Built in the early 8th century A.D., the Mosque is the fourth holiest site in the Islamic world. Speaking of decapitation, it is believed to be the final resting place of the noggins of Saint John the Baptist and Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was killed in battle in 680 A.D., and there are shrines to both men on the premises. Barefoot and wearing the standard issue (for women) floor-length hooded grey cape, I tried to take in every detail of the spacious carpeted hall, the Minaret of Jesus (so called because it is believed the son of God will descend onto that spot at the second coming), the intricate gold mosaics and the citrus trees heavy with fruit in the outer gardens.
More than just a house of worship, the Umayyad Mosque is a gathering place for families and an important focal point of daily life in the old city. Day after day I was drawn back to the open square where, from a seat by the mosque’s stone outer wall, I was able to enjoy a degree of anonymity, soak up the warm winter sunshine and watch children playing and groups of women chatting and laughing. On my last morning in Damascus I returned to my favorite spot. This time though, the energy in the square was different and more people than usual were gathering. They were arriving in groups, some were carrying loud speakers and handmade signs. There was nothing sinister or angry happening but a spark of electricity was in the air.
Groups of young women dressed in black from head to toe trickled in, only their smiling faces showing through the robes. Judging by their clothing alone, it appeared to be a more conservative crowd than you typically see in Damascus, where wearing the hijab is by no means universal. Any illusions of anonymity I had were dampened by all the stares I was attracting – not unfriendly but definitely curious – and one bold young woman even came back twice to take photos of me. The second time she gave her mobile phone to a friend and sat beside me for the photo, motioning with her fingers that she wanted me to smile for the camera. I felt a bit exposed in the crowd and even though nothing dangerous was happening I wasn’t sure what the gathering was all about or how my presence there would be perceived. My instincts told me it would be wise to take my leave.
Was this a tiny foreshadowing of the gatherings and protests that were already gaining steam in Tunisia and Algeria and were soon to sweep through many parts of the Middle East? Less than two weeks later the longtime Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would be overthrown and just three months after my visit the Arab Spring protests would fully take hold in cities around Syria. On the other hand, it could have been a government sponsored pro-Assad gathering. That’s the trouble when you can’t read the signs.
The old walled city of Damascus is delightful. It has plenty of narrow cobbled streets to explore, all day cafés for drinking tea, smoking shisha and playing backgammon, and a-MAY-zing food (I’m still dreaming about the fattoush salad from Jabri House and the sour cherry lamb kebabs from Naranj). But without an imminent threat of being beheaded I feared Andy would get bored. So we boarded an unmarked public van with some Syrian commuters and set out into the desert in search of the ancient Christian settlement of Ma’loula.
Driving down the long dusty highway we passed giant billboards featuring the glowering likeness of the authoritarian Syrian president, Dr. Bashar Al Assad. Luckily, our fellow passengers were friendlier. No one looked at us twice for being foreign or speaking English. The same can’t be said for an old woman who peered into the van from the street when one of the passengers disembarked. She berated me angrily in Arabic, presumably for not wearing a head scarf, but the man sitting next to me just chuckled under his breath and one of the Syrian girls in the van looked at me shyly and smiled as if to say, “don’t worry about that old bat, she’s been out in the desert sun for too long.” We drove on.
Ma’loula is an ancient village wedged into a narrow valley, its yellow limestone houses creeping north up the side of the cliff behind it. It is one of the few remaining places on earth where Aramaic, the language of Jesus (and sometimes Mel Gibson), is still spoken. We hiked up past the Christian convent of St. Thecla and were rewarded with patches of late December snow and great views of the village below. The convent is named for a faithful young woman who, the story goes, was fleeing from persecutors and found herself trapped in a dead end against a sheer rock wall. She said a quick prayer and God split the rock behind her to reveal a passageway through which she escaped to safety. Andy I and ambled in her footsteps through the same steep-sided ravine, cut over the centuries by run-off rain water. After a half-day of exploring we shared a kebab at a café in the village center served by a strapping young waiter with a large tattoo in Aramaic on his forearm.
Post script: For the last eight months the Assad government has been using deadly force to try to crush pro-democracy protests. The UN estimates over 3,000 Syrians have been killed. While I’m told that for the most part life in Damascus continues as before, the people of Syria are in my thoughts during this difficult time.