The sounds of people yelling and what sounded like gunshots awoke my wife and I with a start. It was our first night in Damascus, late last March, the beginning of our trip to Syria, and we had retired early due to a bit of jet lag.
Being someone who likes to be prepared, I had booked our flight several months before any signs of trouble. In the weeks before our trip, there were daily reports of protests and violence. It was a tough call to make, but since – at that time – the violence was limited to certain areas that we would not be traveling to, we decided to go ahead with our plans.
Up to that point, we had enjoyed a great first day walking around Damascus. We saw the Umayyad Mosque and wandered through the Souq Al-Hammidiyyah, captivated by the colorful sights. We had the best falafels of our life for what worked out to be 25 cents each. When we saw a small group of protestors (less than 20) outside the Umayyad Mosque following the Friday prayers, we kept our distance. We enjoyed a fabulous dinner featuring Cherry Kebab (an instant favorite) at Naranj, a beautiful restaurant in the Old City specializing in Aleppan cuisine, and reportedly Bashar al-Assad’s favorite place to eat.
We never did find out what took place that evening – not having a window facing the street, we couldn’t see what was going on, and we never did see anything reported in the news.
With a trip to Turkey coming up in just a few weeks, and reports of tensions flaring between Turkey and neighboring Syria, my mind has been drifting back to memories from our trip to Syria. But much more than the sense of adventure and a few nervous moments, my strongest memories of Syria are those of the people – whom I’ve described many times as being amongst the most welcoming and hospitable I’ve encountered anywhere in the world.
In Deir ez-Zur, my wife and I set out to explore the city on foot. A merchant named Varhad, who also introduced himself as “Mr. Candy,” invited us to sit and join him for tea with a small group of men sitting outside his shop. We drank tea while trying to make conversation the best we could. I practiced the few phrases I had mastered in Arabic, while the men practiced their limited English with us. After an enjoyable 30 minutes or so, when we went to excuse ourselves, Varhad asked us if there was anything we might like on the cart outside his shop. My heart sunk — he was only being friendly with us so that we would buy something from him — certainly not unreasonable, but not the experience I thought I was having (and desired to have). My wife and I picked out a few small items each and asked how much. To my surprise, despite repeated attempts, Varhad refused to take our money. “Welcome to Syria!” he said. “You are welcome here!”
Later that same evening, we passed a pastry shop as we were walking back to the hotel after dinner. Tempted by the baklava on display in the window, we walked in and after some pleasant chit-chat, picked out a few pastries to go. And once again, when we asked how much, the two smiling men behind the counter refused to accept any payment. “America, you are welcome here!” one man exclaimed.
These are just two examples of the many acts of kindness and generosity we encountered throughout our time in Syria. Despite the political tensions, we were welcomed with open arms and good humor. (One young man, upon learning we were from America, retorted with a smile, “We’ll, nobody’s perfect.”)
Travel builds connections; it brings the world closer. Despite our circumstances, we all share our common humanity. With Syria in the news almost daily, the images are very real to me. I often think about the people we encountered on our trip and wonder how they are doing now. I hope, perhaps naively, they are safe and that a peaceful resolution to the conflict can be found.