WORLD – MIDDLE EAST – ESSAY
The View Along the Road
Experience is the best teacher and, for me, Syria has become an extraordinary classroom. On a return trip in October to meet with Elaine Imady, author of The Road to Damascus, I had the chance to talk openly about the tantalizing points raised by her book. The conversations included her husband and her family.
Her familiarity with the government and her long-range perspective of the development of the country provide an intimacy to the bald facts that are out there on any website. It is a fact that there is a higher percentage of women in the Syrian Parliament than there is in the U.S. Congress. Two of the highest ranking ministers are women. When these statistics are presented to you by a friend who knows these women personally, there is a warm face behind the fact.
Our drives around Damascus were proof of her assertions that Syria is as eclectic as any large American city. Being told that women can dress in any way they choose is all very well, but seeing the mind-boggling array of clothing that surges along the streets shocks you into realizing that choice is not just lip service. The outfits rival anything on the streets of New York or LA. And I defy any NY fashionista to look elegant and graceful in stiletto heels on 1,000-year-old cobblestones.
Along the way, I had the chance to speak with Syrians who were genuinely thrilled to have the chance to meet an American. They might know no English but upon hearing the word “America”, they unfailingly broke into a broad grin and exclaimed Ahlan wa s’ahlan, “you are most welcome”.
It is rare to have even the simplest conversation with someone without realizing that we have something of substance to speak about. It might be only the weather, but hot is hot and a cool drink is welcome regardless of the language of the host.
The most overtly welcoming group was, naturally, the younger generation. School children at the various tourist sites would cluster together staring at that odd person who clearly didn’t sound British. A simple smile and a quick crook of the finger would bring them over, happily asking, in English, to take a picture with me on their cell phones-ubiquitous cell phones.
The curiosity of the young people was nowhere more effusive than on a daytrip to the island of Arward, off the coast of Tartous. This outpost of Phoenicia, still guarded by the walls that date to that seafaring nation, is a popular day trip by ferry. The harbourside is lined with restaurants where the dish of the day is the fish of the moment, an hour old, if that. Tables under awnings provide the perfect vantage point to see who is out and about. Vendors thread the crowd, selling balloons, pencils, candy, and all the other knickknacks of seaside villages the world over.
Now, one thing to remember about the culture is that no one begs. A man or woman might be in extreme economic distress, but no one would ever beg. There is always a little something that someone can offer for sale. On Arward, there is a blind man who sells seashells. Strung together in various sizes, the pale pink shell necklaces looped over his arms click like wind chimes as he walks along, calling his wares.
My friend took me over to buy one and then a strange thing happened, every young girl from the tables around ran up to the old man. In five minutes, his arms were empty. He stood surprised by the activity, wiggling his fingers to assure himself of his good luck. His smile was as bright as the Syrian sun. The girls now had the excuse to come over to show me their clever purchases and then the mothers came too, the fathers and brothers only a moment behind.
It became obvious that people were dying to talk to me and all that was needed was the icebreaker. The questions were always the same: where are you from and, upon hearing the answer, the shocked question of why have you come? The unfortunate perception is that Americans don’t like Syria or the Middle East at all. The pure delight at the thought that that perception is wrong is palpable.
The best conversation I had was had in total silence. As I walked down a narrow, ancient street in Damascus, a stunning young woman was walking toward me. In a heartbeat, our eyes met, dropped to our feet, rose to meet again. We instantly broke into wide grins at the shared moment that transcended language, culture, religion, politics and rhetoric. Who needs words when you have shoes to scope out?
On both trips, the small things are the real shockers: like seeing bright red hair and blue eyes, not uncommon in the population, or being told that Middle Eastern Christians use the word Allah in their services. This short word, which is now so loaded in the West, is after all only the word for God. If a word, or shoes, or cell phones can be common, what else can be?
The road to Damascus, or to Palisades, is lit by the same eastern sun at dawn. It matters little if it is paved or dirt, smooth or rutted. The road may be less travelled, but all upon it are heading in the same direction.
Published Dec 16, 2009
An attorney by profession, E. E. Whiting has freelanced for several years writing on a variety of topics from estate planning to travel to her personal favourite, food. She currently lives in Princeton, NJ and escapes to odd destinations at the drop of a hat. A native of Maine, she lived in Wales while attending college and frequently returns to visit the places few tourists go. She was introduced to Syria by her friend, the biographer Mary Lovell, whose books on Jane Digby and Sir Richard and Isabella Burton kindled Mary’s own love affair with that country years ago. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College with an MA in Mediaeval Studies, Whiting indulges her fascination with history on all her travels.