April 17, 2008

Damascus, Syria

Coming from the desert and then Amman, at first, Damascus seemed a little overwhelming. Or perhaps it was just overwhelming to get there; traveling by service taxi on a Friday, which is the weekly Muslim gathering day much like the Christian Sunday, I had to wait for the five car seats to fill before leaving and the journey proved to be a test of patience (or an opportunity to catch up on my book – my glass is half full). So even though Damascus is only about three hours from Amman (depends on border procedure, which in my case went smooth), it took me eight. On the way passed a road sign that had written on it “Damascus” with an arrow pointing straight and “Iraq” with an arrow pointing to the right. Although it would have been nice to say hi to some Americans, as I have met only one on on my travels so far, I am glad we followed the arrow straight (and I am not one to usually say that); straight into Damascus which was brimming with lots of people, lights and activity.
After spending the first part of the next day catching up on errands (washing my clothes, posting photos and bringing the broken camera into the shop) I set out toward Old Damascus in the rich, late afternoon light with nothing but a few bucks and my camera in hand. It took me a while to work through the psychology of military presence and picture taking after hearing too many urban legends of how other traveler’s had gotten their camera’s confiscated, but as my comfort grew stronger, I became a snapoholic; trying in vain to capture the vibrancy of an ancient marketplace that sells everything from, well, everything to things you never even knew existed. I was approached at the Umayyad Mosque (where John the Baptist’s head is buried) by a really sweet university student, Mohammed, trying to practice his English. We became immediate friends and bartered the relationship into teacher for tour guide for the next three days. In fact, the official English teachers tell students to find tourists to converse with and after spending some time with Mohammed I can support this advice – his language skills improved tenfold. We wandered around for hours on the pedestrian-only streets of which were narrow, colorful and packed with vendors and shoppers. There is a small passageway that connects the Muslim and Christian section of Old Damascus and one can go from predominately veiled women and tea shops to unveiled, western-styled women and bars in under five minutes.
Damascus is a great city that is surrounded by lush green farmland and desert alike. Palm trees line some streets and with Qasioun mountain towering above it feels as though the only thing missing is the Hollywood sign. Other than the super friendly staff at the Al-Rabie hotel who would sometimes join me on my day travels, my social life in Damascus was cemented with a visit to Qasioun mountain, which is about a ten minute drive uphill and overlooks the entire landscape of the city, which when visited at sunset or at night is really spectacular. I had arranged to meet Mohammed, but our plans were thwarted by a slight language barrier and my location unfamiliarity, so I ended up seeing the splendor of Quasioun with my taxi driver, who is now my friend Majed. His energy was so pure that even though he barely spoke English and I barely spoke Arabic, after cracking open some beer while watching the nighttime panorama, we were engaged in conversation that ranged from politics to religion to philosophy – conducted simply with enthusiastic hand movements, a love of life, and piecemeal language. We eventually descended and went to La Roche restaurant which is a Syrian version of what was once my favorite jazz bar in Manhattan where I scored the coveted Middle Eastern prize of an invite to Majed's home to share a traditional Syrian lunch with him and his wife and children. Unfortunately my social schedule was full.
In three days I went from being let out of a taxi at night, alone with my backpack on to juggling social engagements with various groups of newfound friends, proving that the American idea that Syria is dangerous place is just plain wrong. Traveling, you come to understand that people, most of the time, don’t reflect their government. We are all human beings that when approached with an open heart can respond in kind.

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