A boy named RAJ.
On my first evening in Aleppo I met a boy named Raj. I was sat in a hotel bar called ‘English Pub’ wondering quite why I had come to Syria to pay £4 for beer, bad music and sleazy looks from the other lonely souls who had decided to spend a night at one of the few places that serve alcohol.
I wasn’t talking to anyone and I wasn’t meeting eyes. I was singing along in my head to the pan-piped Celine Dion.
I hardly noticed a group enter, a mix of sexes and a guitar, but when they started to laugh and I heard English spoken I decided to go join. This is the moment when I met Raj.
When my couch-surfing host could not escort me home (apparently a necessary thing to do) Raj offered to walk with me. I told him about my journey so far and he told me about his studies, his family and his love of music. He asked if I’d write words to the music he’s written and I agreed. We sang Dylan together and also Janis Joplin.
Three hours later and I’d tried every way possible to persuade him to join my travels through Syria. It’s worth writing here that he shows me real respect, never angling for a kiss or speaking smut. He’s the only under-40 I’ve met here who hasn’t had a suggestive wink, word or go. By the time he began his walk home it was 4am and I’d suggested that we meet the next day so that I could try and persuade him some more.
Talk to me about Raj when I come home, because there’s nothing that I could write here that will do him justice, so I go back to relying on photos from our week together.
Raj had already been to our first stop, the seaside town of Lattakia, but he hadn’t had the advice of the Lonely Planet to guide his steps. We followed its directions to a beach with black sand, deserted parasols and turquoise sea.
That evening we wanted to drink beer and play guitar by the sea. Lattakia is a port so it’s tricky to find a seaside spot without taking a bus or hitching a ride. I hadn’t yet tried hitch-hiking in Syria and starting at night seemed like a bad idea. A group of eight began this search but as we kept coming up against the guarded gates to the port our numbers dwindled. By the end it was just Max (a Dutch wonder – 18 years old and hitch-hiking from Holland and back again), Raj and I, our beers getting warm in our pockets. We wouldn’t give up and so we arrived at a beach, a little out of town, and deserted except for some pretty shady Syrians. We sat down to sing and play guitar and they surrounded us, men leaning over me and staring hard. Raj switched places to that I was stuck in the middle of Max and him. We all relaxed as the Syrians lost interest in our group. It was past one when we decided to make our way back to the hostel. Raj was pretty drunk and excited to attempt his first hitch-hike.
We sat in the back of a pick-up truck with Raj in the front singing ‘Mustafa’ to the driver.
The next day we (Max, Caroline, Raj and I) split into teams of two to hitch-hike to the Crak de Chevaliers – the biggest and best preserved of the crusader castles. It’s funny travelling with a Syrian to Syrian tourist spots. He pays a 15th of the tourist entrance price and is more amazed than us y what he sees. He makes it magic because he gives it a context – it belongs to his history and to his country.
Raj, by default of speaking Arabic, sometimes found himself as go-between or translator to the Arabs who were fascinated and maybe enchanted by our presence in their country. With hitch-hiking this could be a saving grace but it also meant that he had to negotiate how distant our way of life could seem to them. Once on the side of the road a minibus pulled over wanting to pick us up for pay. It was getting late but we knew that if we waited we would get a lift. The driver yelled to Raj: ‘just leave them. Come with us! They’re crazy, look at what they’re doing.’ Thank God (for me) Raj decided to stick together.
His role as translator also meant that he had to hear things that would not have been spoken to us. As a girl travelling alone you get incredibly moments of kindness when the whole world wants to protect you, but of course your presence gets misunderstood, taken advantage of, too.
A group of working men invited us to share their lunch. They were two fathers with their sons. After they invited us to come to their house for a party that evening and to stay with them too. I’m going to write a blog about how incredible Syrian kindness can be, but that wasn’t one of those times. This was just a dirty old man being opportunistic.
Before we left he took Raj aside for men-chat. ‘So tonight I will have half an hour with her.’ Raj bound by the conventions he follows, being polite, explained that there had been a misunderstanding. ‘All right, twenty minutes then.’ ‘Come close and your house will be destroyed.’ Raj said.
Raj has been my best friend, my saviour in Many an uncomfortable situation, my guide and translator, my musical aficionado, my hiking partner in crime. I guess you find a lot of friends on the road, it’s can be a lonely place and you can grab people close, but Raj is more than a convenient find. He’s a boy that I won’t forget and I won’t leave behind.