Syria dominates many TV channels and news sites these days. While diplomats from the US, Russia and other major players make deals, a war rages in the country documented on grainy video cameras from activists and reporters.
With so much coverage of atrocity and bloodshed, it can be hard for many to imagine what the country might have been like before the Arab Spring came pounding at Damascus' door.
Yet there was a time when Syria was at peace. True, it was a peace forced by strong hands in the police and the government, a peace cultivated in dank prison cells by suited men in intelligence bureaus and hidden agents in the streets. Still, it was peace nonetheless and it was this Syria that I got to see first hand in 2009. My memories of that time have only been cemented by the current conflict. As the maelstrom of Syria's civil war continues, it seems important to share these memories. In doing so I hope I provide others with a vision of the country untainted by blood and dust, an image of a country which is filled with living breathing people, instead of news-headlines.
Entering through Turkey
In November of 2009, I was a 22 year old senior in college getting my first glance of the Middle East. For several years, I read books about the region from New York. I was so captivated by the region I made it a central area of my studies. Yet before that winter, I had never experienced it. After spending a month in Egypt, with 30 other students on the Middle East Studies Program, we left the country for the travel component of our program to study the political and cultural life of other surrounding countries. After spending a week in Turkey we traveled south by plane and bus to the Syrian border to continue our journey to Damascus.
Today, this border area is swamped by tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict. In 2009, it seemed like one of the loneliest and emptiest places I had ever been. Arriving on our air conditioned bus in the dead of night we waited for what seemed like an eternity while Turkish customs inspected our passports. When the authorities deemed our papers in order, we were allowed to take our bus through the no-man's land between the two countries. We were the only vehicle driving down that the winding dirt road. A few rusting trucks sat by the side abandoned by their owners. Surrounded by vacant land devoid of trees or plant life, I felt as if we were taking a tour of Purgatory.
Eventually, we emerged from this spectral stretch and arrived at the Syrian outpost. As we waited for the powers that be to let us cross, a number of students decided to exchange money at a small counter inside a nearby building. Though we hadn't stepped onto Syrian soil it was obvious this new country was going to be far different from the place we had just left. Many of the students on the program, including myself, had found Turkey be a slick and sophisticated place. An Eastern soul with a Western body, Turkey seemed to be a very modern state on par with Europe.
Even the buildings on the Turkish side of the border seemed elegant. The Syrian buildings by contrast seemed well worn. The floor of the exchange was stained and the counter windows in need of repair. Our small, crisp bills of Turkish Lira were traded in for stacks of large, ruffled Syrian Dinars. The beautifully designed, yet insanely large notes of this inflated currency ballooned our wallets.
Hama -The Wheels of Discontent
After crossing into Syria we spent several more hours traveling along pitch black roads before arriving at the town of Hama. It was here we spent a large portion of our first day in the country.
A small and unassuming place on the surface, Hama is especially notable for two reasons: First, it is home to a number of large waterwheels, which have been transporting water from a river to local farmers via stone aqueducts for thousands of years. Second, it has been a longstanding center of resistance to the past two Syrian governments.
In 1982, Hafez al Assad, the father and predecessor to Syria's current president, crushed a rebellion in the town launched by the Muslim Brotherhood. Employing tactics his son would later use in his own crackdown, Hafez's soldiers bombed and shelled Hama indiscriminately for days before sending in soldiers to root out any lingering resistance. An estimated 20,000 people died during the 'Hama Massacre' with reports stating that most of the buildings in the city had been leveled.
27 years later, the town we saw in the morning light seemed anything but a ruin. Though not a sprawling metropolis, shops were open, people milled around and the waterwheels flowed as smoothly as they had for centuries. The building bore no bullet holes or craters. No signs of that cataclysmic massacred remained to a foreigner's eye.
Today, I read this town is now a center of opposition to the government once again, Hama has suffered the fate of many Syrian cities in the current civil war, making me wonder how many of streets are once again in ruins and if these new scars from another war will be erased as quickly as those made in 1984.
The Castle of the Chivalrous -History Bombed Away
After concluding our brief visit to Hama, we 30 Americans, Canadians and Dutch students took a bus south, heading for the capital Damascus. Traveling on paved highways, we got a glimpse of many small towns and farms in the Syrian countryside. Here, men working the fields and riding tractors still wore the Arab headscarf and robes as they worked. These idyllic scenes were interrupted occasionally by a checkpoint manned by uniformed soldiers totting Kalashnikov rifles.
How many of those soldiers remain at their posts today? How many deserted to the rebels? How many have been killed or wounded? Do the farmers I saw still work their fields or do their fields remain empty? I will never know.
Part way through our journey to Damascus, the bus wound up a spiral hill through several small towns and villages along the mountainous Syrian-Lebanese border. Here, in this area close to the Syrian President's ancestral homeland, we saw the remains of the grand hillside castle Krak des Chervaliers.
A Crusader era fortress, used by Kurds, Hospitlars and soldiers of the legendary Sultan Saladin, touring the battlements and towers of white stones was a highlight of our trip. From the high vantage point we could look out over the land for miles around. It was this elevation and the castle's imposing walls that probably drew a rebel group to turn this 700 year old structure into their base of operations in 2011. If what I read today is true, then this castle is still being used by the rebels and has been bombed by government aircraft several times in the past two years. At times, it does seem like the tragic destruction of such rich historical places is as heartbreaking as the slaughter of people which occurs daily throughout Syria.
Maloula -A Community Scattered
Our next stop after the castle (dubbed the Krak by we witty students), was the town of Maloula. One of three villages in a small area of Syria, Maloula has (perhaps had) the distinction of being the last Christian majority community in the world that stilled used Aramaic. A root language of modern Hebrew and Arabic, Aramaic is believed to have been the most widely spoken language in Palestine during Jesus' lifetime. While I can't say I'm religious at the moment, hearing such an ancient language spoken in Maloula's church was a very profound experience. The old yet very well maintained hillside monasteries and churches, with their bronze doors and gilded sanctuaries were also incredible to behold. While Sunni Islam is the religion most people in Syria ascribe to, the country has long been the home of groups such as Christians, Druze and Alawii Shias. Syriac and Chaldean Christians have roots in the country which go back thousands of years and they still make up around 10% of the country's population.
Sadly, this may be changing as the war rages on. Last week, I saw Maloula's name appear in my Facebook newsfeed. An Al Qaeda affiliated rebel group attacked a government garrison which had been stationed in the town. Reports indicate most of the town's population has fled the fighting. The fighting in Syria has caused over 100,000 deaths since the conflict began. Many of these have been civilians, belonging to various religious groups. Atrocities have been widely committed by all sides. Moderate Sunnis, Christians, Alwaii Shias and Druze have been among victims. Make no mistake, there are no angels on any side of this war.
Damascus -The Eyes of Bashar
When we finally arrived in Damascus, I was in need of a fresh socks. I had forgotten to wash my dirty pairs before we left Egypt and I was worried I would soon stink up the entire city and earn some disgruntled glares from the other students. Thankfully, I was saved the next day by a street vendor peddling knockoff Nike and Adidas socks near the Old City.
The Old City is where we students spent a lot of our time when we weren't attending lectures. It is a very appropriate name as this small area of Damascus is one of the longest continually inhabited places in the world. Here, Roman columns stand alongside the domes and minarets of Ottoman and Ummayad era mosques. Some of the oldest church traditions also call this area home.
For as long as these buildings have stood, there have been merchants and businessmen peddling goods in the stone streets. It was here that some of my fondest memories of Syria were born:
Fresh chicken schwaerma, wrapped in unleavened white bread, laced with garlic mayonnaise and pickles.
A colorful pageant of spices, stacked in bright flavorful pyramids of powder tucked away in stone shops.
Pomegranate juice, squeezed fresh out of the fruit by men pushing carts smothered in the orange fruits.
A DVD store stacked to the roof with pirated copies of every major movie and tv show imaginable.
A workshop producing famed, and coveted mother of pearl jewelry boxes for tourists.
Shops selling antique (read fake antique) brass compasses, telescopes and other instruments8.
A traditional bathouse (Hamam), hundreds of years old, where I had the best steam bath and massage of my life. The latter was courtesy of a burly, hair carpeted man with a mustache.
To me, all these memories define Damascus. However, there are other darker memories that also stand out, memories that seem even more illuminated in light of the war. I will never forget the aspects I've listed above but I also can't forget these.
The sight of Hezbollah flags and Hassan Nasrallah portraits festooning certain shops in the Old City.
The dozens of policemen and plainclothes men with automatic weapons that patrolled downtown Damascus, wandering like packs of wolves looking for prey.
The fact that Syria was the first (and so far only) country I've been to where Facebook was blocked completely.
The fact that wherever you went, a portrait of the President, or his father, was somewhere watching over you.
Though I had spent two months in Egypt, whose police-state regime would be overthrown two years later. I had not felt the 'Deep State's' feel as much as I had in Syria. In Damascus I could feel that 'Big Brother' was there and he was watching.
Even before the civil war, Syria's dreaded mukhabarat (secret police) was notorious for it's ruthless. In an area of the world with many dreaded intelligence agencies, they stood out in conversations with people in the region.
I only had to deal with this feeling of surveillance for a few days, but I wonder how I as a person may have evolved if I had felt these eyes and hands on me my whole life. What feelings and injustices would I have suppressed or kept bottled up for fear of my life, my friends and family? At what point might I had snapped and tried, anything, everything to get rid of the face on the wall of my business, school, maybe my home?
Syria -More Than a Single Picture
I left Syria after a week. It had been an eventful one to say the least and I had enjoyed myself immensely along with so many of the other students. Once again we climbed on a bus and headed south. This time, though, we were going to another country, Jordan and would leave Syria after only staying a week. A few hours later, we once again passed into a complex and intriguing country, one which is worth a blog-post in its own right.
After passing the Syrian gate, we paused briefly near the border post and were allowed to stretch our legs. As we milled around by our vehicle I took a picture of the Syrian border crossing post. Unlike the gates we had crossed on the Turkish border, this one was distinct for having a large portrait of Syria's president and his father above it.
This photo, the last image I ever captured of Syria, is in some ways a fitting image of the country I saw. In other ways it's not.
Syria then, much as now, is a mystery to so many outsiders. From an outside perspective it's a country hidden behind faces, names, facts and figures. These faces include the President and his father. His government and their legacy so often seem to define the picture of Syria to the outside world, so much that perhaps the humanitarian cost and the people behind his face often seem to get forgotten.
With all the rhetoric recited among media networks and politicians, it's easy for a simple fact to get lost. Syria, is a country, it's a country like any other with people who live or attempt to live ordinary lives in the midst of an extreme catastrophe that I doubt few people in the States or in other parts of the world would be able to cope with. Syria, is far more than the faces of it's president, the faces of Al Qaeda, the face of Obama or the face of Vladimir Putin. It's a country of 23 million faces. It's these faces we should always remember when reading the headlines.
Behind the headlines and the photos of power players and policy makers are millions of people. People, in desperate need of many things, but perhaps most of all, recognition.