A Syria that felt like home

I keep reading about the turmoil in Syria, worrying about friends there, shaking my head at such a beautiful place in such an ugly situation. I’ve been meaning to write about my memories of Syria for a while, more so after the present events kept bringing them to the surface.

But first: a disclaimer. This is not a political piece, some sort of statement, or expert opinion. It’s just a collection my thoughts, feelings, memories, and wishes.

I went to Syria in the summer of 2009 to do some volunteer work on market access for olive farmers in Salamieh, which is about a 3 hour drive from Damascus. The town’s only motel was fully booked for the first couple of days (unsurprisingly, as they only had 4 rooms) so I stayed at a hotel in Hama, about a half an hour away. Walking around Hama, taking in the stone architecture, ancient water wheels, and quiet streets, I began to grasp what it really felt like to be in such historical and cultural depth. I didn’t expect to be so moved by the place, considering I was based in Europe at the time and saw seemingly ancient architecture and places on a daily basis, but this was another level all together.

I spent most of my time in Salamieh where new contacts treated me like family from the instant we met. As we went into the field, I met olive farmers who looked Italian, Greek or Spanish. It dawned on me that once upon a time peoples of the Mediterranean freely roamed and settled, resettled lands without the idea of passports, visas, border controls. They went where adventures and need led them, and stayed where they found a reason to do so.

In the evenings I was never alone as my hosts took me out to sumptuous dinners every night. I must have consumed my weight in amazing tabouleh,  fattoush, muhammara, hummus, and so on (again-I was the weird vegetarian in a land of delectable meat dishes but you know what? the veggies were so good I didn’t miss the meat at all). My new family-like friends took me to their homes and fed me mom-made dishes. They took me to a wedding where they danced gracefully and were very kind to let me off after my short, pathetic attempts at their beautiful dancing technique. And they fed me sumptuous breakfasts of fresh bread, pickled vegetables, cheese, dried fruit, olives and olive oil. The olives and olive oil were from their own farms and I have never, ever tasted better olive oil before or since.

We walked the streets of Salamieh and I felt like I was walking down the streets of my hometown in India. Years ago, when I was still a child living there, my hometown was as quiet and relaxed, people as familiar with each other, as Salamieh was to that day. Now, my hometown is a crazy busy dirty suburb of Mumbai and will never again have the same vibe it did when I was a child. So walking through Salamieh was like uncorking the bottle of childhood nostalgia and taking a long, deep drink.

I left Salamieh, laden with presents and much richer in friendship and made my way to Damascus, where another future friend took care of me until it was time for my flight several hours later. I didn’t really have much time to see Damascus but from what I saw the city was a juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, of the villas of the prosperous and the modest homes that crowded up the hills surrounding the city. We dined that night at one of the many open-air restaurants set in the courtyard of what seemed to be a former villa. In fact, I was told that some of these old villas  were now converted into hotels with the courtyard serving as the hotel’s restaurant. The food was less memorable than the beautiful meals I had in Salamieh, but the company was just as lovely. My host rendezvous-ed with a couple of her Syrian friends, some other expats joined us, and we formed a motley meandering bunch, traversing maze like alleys to get to the restaurant. The warm, dry night, the lively conversation and plenty of Syrian lemonade (whole limes, ice, sugar and mint blended together) made for a perfect goodbye to the country.

I left Syria with many ‘aha’s’ in my mind. On our way to visit olive oil factories one day, we accidentally drove about 10 minutes too far and hit the Turkish border. On the way back to Salamieh, we saw hills and realized that Lebanon was just over on the other side (in fact, going to Beirut for a short break was a pastime of my expat friends in Syria). Israel and Jordan were not too much farther beyond Damascus. Such proximity in such a delicate situation. Beyond the politics what especially struck me is the level of state involvement in everything in Syria and the degree to which young people were, I would say, wasted.

I met some young people with perfectly good university degrees, some having done part or all of their qualifications at excellent institutions abroad. Of these some had great jobs while others were struggling to do volunteer work and internships in the hope that they would get jobs. Some young people I met had government jobs but these didn’t really mean much and the government employees always tried to find occupations on the side, both to shore up their insufficient government salaries and to overcome boredom. Young people who didn’t come from wealthy families often had to travel for lengthy periods to get from their homes in the hills to work in the city. All of that pent up potential, all of those young people, and all of their dreams….

My trip to Syria in 2009 felt too short and I knew when I left, I wanted to return, to see Aleppo and Palmyrah, to go back to peaceful Salamieh and wander its streets, to remember how it felt to find a place that felt so much like home in a land I’d never been before.

It didn’t happen immediately after I left, but as the months and then the years passed, I heard of Syria progressively destabilizing until it reached the point we can all see on the news. I worry about my friends and all the people I met and hope that they are able to restore peace, finally bring a functional democracy, to their country. And I look forward to the day when I can return and write once again of all the lovely sights I recommend others to visit in what has become one of my favourite places in the world.

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