What’s happening to Syria? To the people of Syria. My friends in Syria. I wonder. And I cry.
Why? Because Syria surprised me. Surprised me with thrilling and unexpected joy—and filled me with wonder and curiosity.
That was then.
Though it seems like yesterday, it was about 4 years ago when I changed my plans, my route and my mind and ventured into Syria. What I thought would be a few day journey through the tiny and controversial country, turned into weeks of exploring back roads, medieval towns, historic mosques and of meeting people who went out of their way to introduce me to their country and whose hospitality, though not unusual to a world traveler, warmed my heart and opened my mind to, what I believed at the time, a world of Syrian possibilities. And opportunity.
My expectations back in 2008 were, at first, tempered, given the challenge and patience testing circumstances I endured at the border. I had no idea what to expect from or in Syria. It took me more than 24 hours of negotiating, commitment, confidence and a helluva lot of persistence at the border between Syria and Jordan, and though the rules were clear, they didn’t seem like they’d yield to my tenacity and break them, somehow I convinced Syrian immigration and customs to let me and my motorcycle into Syria.
Yet before I could escape the dusty outpost where truck drivers argue, families gather and women, hiding behind burkas take more than a step away from me when I walk by, curiosity aroused, the chief of the border post invited me to enjoy tea and shared with me, on a map he scribbled with a stick into the earth between his feet, the sites I should not miss while visiting Syria.
I remember that chief inspector, with his silver hair, rough features yet how his kind eyes made me feel welcome and that all the effort at the border was worth it.
And I wonder. I remember the gas station owner who wouldn’t let me pay for my gas and insisted I have tea and lunch inside the gas station. The man selling tamarind juice on the square in the new city in Aleppo. “You try, you try,” he said over and over again. When my face puckered from the bitter taste, he offered me a sweeter and more approachable alternative. And I wonder. I remember the young boy who latched onto me as I explored the citadel in the old city and wandered through the maze of colorful and aromatic souks, of Aleppo. And I wonder.
I wonder what is happening to a country that I often refer to as one of my favorite of the more than 50 countries I’ve visited over the years. Just a few short years ago, Syria sucked me in, seduced, satisfied and teased me like playful lover — like no other. Yet I wonder. What’s happened to Syria, my Syria; the Syria I remember, the friends.
In Aleppo at the modest restaurant where the staff sent me home with a bottle of Syrian wine and where I was asked to play a lute-like stringed instrument, the one that when I tried to make music just croaked, and that I’m sure grated on the ears and nerves of the other guests dining in the room. Yet they indulged me. And so my love affair with Syria, fresh at this time, barely a week, blossomed and was public.
Smitten and excited by the beauty and history of Aleppo, I opted out of travel to the historic dead cities of the east, only so I could be with the living, and the energy of the people of Aleppo—the people who, in so many ways, trusted me with the key to their city and offered sights, sounds and flavors. Though perhaps I didn’t know it at the time, they did this willingly and with intent, I can only guess, to seduce me further.
I wonder. What’s happened to Syria. My Syria. The Syria I remember.
Watching the nearly live video from the New York Times blog, the reality of the danger and destruction of Syria leaves nothing for the imaginations. Journalists for the most part have abandoned the city and try to report with an ear to the doors at the borders of Lebanon and Turkey. Yet where people, on both sides of the conflict, armed with video-capable cell phones are capturing the madness like no other conflict we’ve ever seen. These are not the eyes or camera of journalists. So it’s difficult to truly know or understand exactly what we’re watching. But that doesn’t matter. Because what we’re seeing is brutal—regardless of who is to blame.
To these eyes, world powers in a game of either cat and mouse or drawn out chess, approach the conflict barely at arm’s length. Russians. Americans. Iranians. Israelis. Turks. Lebanese. Today, it seems, that any shimmer of hope was dulled when Kofi Annan walked away from his ambitious role leading an envoy for peace. With tail tucked between legs as the retreat from Syria continues, the blood will continue to spill and the super powers and the UN will advance its own agendas while throwing caustic rhetoric and blame at Annan. They will continue to ignore the burning buildings and bodies and, as such, the question fogging my mind will remain unanswered. What’s happening to Syria. My Syria, the Syria I remember.
What happened to you, Syria? My Syria.
Hmmm. I also remember visiting Rwanda before arriving in Syria.