Just three days ago I woke up in Damascus for the last time (for now). It doesn’t seem possible, sitting here in my Cambridge office, looking out the window at a still mid-winter sky, that exactly this time last week I was watching the sun set on the road between Homs and Damascus. It doesn’t quite seem real to have been half a world away.
And yet such are the woes of my generation: as Rebekah Heacock and I have mused, we are indeed “the first globals” whether we like it or not. We are caught up in this world where borders seem thinner than they really are, friends in faraway places can become real with just a few clicks of the keyboard, a visa application, and a trip to the local airport (okay, perhaps it isn’t always that easy, but you get my drift). In the past year, I have met over fifty people that were previously only avatars and blog URLs, but who have become best friends and loved ones. Becoming attached to people so far away can hurt desperately; it can also demonstrate the true power of this new world we live in. It can also change your life.
But this post is supposed to be about Syria. Syria, just the name of which causes raised eyebrows where I’m from. Syria, which people assume to be this country on the axis of evil, this dark place hidden away from the world. Syria, which causes people to somehow forget thousands of years of history in remembrance of the past fifty or so.
In reality? I loved it. Along with Prague, it’s the best place I’ve ever traveled, only better, because the people match the beauty of the place (not the case in the city of a hundred spires). And having gone in with no real magical expectations (I admittedly did most of my reading on Wikipedia, which is fine, because I know who authored most of Syria’s Wikipedia entries), any that I did have were far exceeded.
But of course a country seems perfect when you’re only there for eight days. I don’t want to give some magical perception of the place, because I realize that I barely dug beneath the surface. I spent all of my time with the inimitable Anas Qtiesh of Global Voices, and we were often joined by the lovely Sarah, and occasionally by the beautiful Razan. I ate fetteh and cherry kabobs (which my dear Syrian Bostonian friend told me this morning are not in fact an Aleppine tradition at all), and drank countless glasses of the lemon-and-mint-smoothie that is polo. I rode on the nicest train I’ve ever been on in my life (only the German route from Munich to Prague remotely compares), countless incredible Syrian buses (including once in a VIP section in the back that reminded me of the mob), and plenty of taxis and services (microbuses). I visited the Citadel of Aleppo, the Khan Asad Pasha and Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Mediterranean coast in Tartous, and the ruins at Bosra. I drank countless cups of strong black coffee, plenty of Barada beers, and copious amounts of homemade Syrian wine out of a gasoline can.
People keep asking me how my trip was – some with amazement that I went there at all, others with the same curiosity as if I’d just returned from Paris or California. Others still ask “why on earth would you want to go there?” Still others are surprised I managed to return at all. I don’t really know how to answer these questions – If I say it was incredibly safe, I was never bothered once, and it felt like home, they either don’t believe me or are shocked. If I say things seem to run so smoothly and everyone is perfectly kind, I feel like I’m betraying Syria’s reality (which is to say that of course it’s not perfect, but a tourist can’t see below the surface). So when anyone asks, I just say I had the time of my life.