(originally posted August, 2008)
I don’t have a lot of things on my “bucket list” but travelling to Syria is definitely one of them. Have you ever dreamed of being somewhere you can almost feel it – smell the flowers and the sea salt, taste the spice-rich foods, hear the call of the muezzin over the buzz of the busy streets? I read and re-read as many articles as I can on this beautiful place. Lately I’ve discovered that blogs are the most useful source of information. There are those who write about their travels there and there are also those who live there, who write descriptive articles about the people, food, and out of the way places. I find official tourist sites, to be of little help…the information barely skims the surface of what Syria has to offer.
I have been lucky enough to have “met” several Syrians with whom I communicate on a regular basis. They have told me stories about their homeland and are also assisting me with learning to speak Arabic. Interestingly, one of them is completely immersed in the culture and arts of her country with no intention or desire to ever leave. The other is a young man who is fed up with the conservatism and what he views as backwardness of the country and intends to leave as soon as he can. Perhaps some day he will find himself returning and wondering why he ever left in the first place. Who knows?
I haven’t been many places in my life. I have been lucky enough to cross the “pond” several times to visit my husband’s ancestral land, Greece. In my mind, Greece is not that different from Syria – only the language, religion, and I suppose some cultural aspects. Much of the food, behavioural characteristics, and familial ties are very similar. Greece has a very strong connection to its ancient past, but it is undeniable that it has been strongly shaped by the Ottoman occupation – as was Syria. It is also similar in its climate and vegetation. The beautiful bougainvillea decorates the sides of the white washed and stone buildings. Large olive groves decorate hillsides far and wide – although I think are more plentiful in Greece. The coastlines of both countries boast colourful blue and white tavernas or cafés at the edge of the sea, with fresh, delicious seafood. Even the music has a similar beat – although the Greeks tend to favour the bouzouki and clarinet over the Middle Eastern Oud. I would be greatly remiss if I didn’t mention the richness in both countries of archaeological and historical sites – ancient temples, byzantine churches, and structures and artefacts that hail to the ingenuity of days gone by.
So if there are such similarities why bother going? It is the similarities that will take the edge off of being in a foreign country. I will have an understanding of acceptable behaviour, what to order at a restaurant and how to eat it, when to go out, when to nap, when to shop, and all of those things that you have to get used to when you’ve never been before. But Syria is different because it is Syria and not Greece. The people are Levantine and not Greek. It has Damascus, the city of Jasmine (I can’t wait to inhale the scent) with the old city and the Souq Meddat Pasha and several other souqs, the old mosques – most notably the Ummayad Mosque, the shrine to Salah al-Din, the Citadel, numerous museums and parks, and restaurants galore. And that’s just Damascus. The rest of the country has the ancient ruins at Palmyra, the Norias in Hama, the crusader fortifications – Krak des Chevaliers in Homs and the Tower in Safita, the city of old city of Aleppo with numerous sites to visit, and this is only to name a few.
The fact that Dubbya named Syria in his “Axis of Evil” is not a deterrent to me. He’s an idiot and from what I’ve read and the people with whom I’ve interacted, the people of Syria are not so different from those of us in North America. They have jobs, families, friends, just as we do. My only concern is the instability of the region and the ripple effects. But I could go to a local bank and get shot in a heist, or get run over by a bus crossing the street, so why worry – live a little dangerously and live a lot!
To give credit where credit is due, my obsession originally started after watching Kingdom of Heaven. I was completely entranced by Ghassan Masoud – the actor who played Salah al-Din who happens to be a Syrian. But my interest in Syria has far surpassed a crush on a movie star – no really, it has – and I hope to convince my husband some day that, while in Greece, a little hop across the Mediterranean to the Levant would be in our best interest and a would be the making of a very memorable vacation.