Staying with a Syrian Family
(and I’m sorry not to do this subject justice here…)
Alongside Luxor in Egypt, Petra in Jordan and The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Lonely Planet for the Middle East guides the traveller to the ‘must-see’ experience of ‘Syrian People’. A whole population becomes a tourist attraction. Here is their précis of why:
‘It’s quite disconcerting to have strangers shout at you in the street but when they’re saying ‘Welcome to Syria’, it melts your heart. This kept happening wherever we went. On the train from Aleppo to Damascus a man with a family struck up conversation with us and invited us to stay at his home. At other times, taxi drivers would refuse to take fares, or strangers would offer to be our guides. Sometimes the destination would be their brother’s shop, but more often there wasn’t any alterior motive. They were proud to show off their city and maybe to practice their English.’
I think that Syria is on the cusp of being a major tourist attraction. I don’t know whether the figures support that but from the souks to the remote monasteries there’s a feeling that people are getting used to what it means to be a commodity – what they gain and what they have to lose. It goes something like this – the gain an income but they put a price on their heads.
In a monastery, if most of the people are coming to ‘experience the solitude’ rather than take part in the discipline of a religious order, the monks and workers can’t help but be one part of a tourist’s experience. I was there and I am part of the tourist wave – but I had expected to stay at Mar Musa for weeks yet when I found myself treated like a customer rather than a pilgrim or penitent I left. I guess I came too late for the authentic Mar Musa experience…
Enough gloom. As someone writing a ‘travel blog’ my message must be to get to Syria fast before ‘Syrian People’ stop being worthy of a Lonely Planet special mention. As a tourist, or even a traveller (because there’s a HUGE difference y’know…), I can’t tell people to clear off, to allow Syrian people’s interaction with foreigners to be something more than that of commodity/tourist. And anyhow, for now, their economy wants us.
Like the authors of the Lonely Planet, I’ve been invited to stay with Syrian families. One time I’ve already written about. It still feels horrible to have been spoken of as a commodity – ‘half an hour with her’ was the price they put on their kindness. ‘No? Well 20 minutes then?’
But the most recent time must have been what the Lonely Planet was talking about.
I arrived in Damascus in time for a concert in a square in the Christian quarter. There were few hijabs and people were drinking beer and clapping. A group of Syrian women noticed me and started waving and beckoning. I should give some tips. If you want to experience the Syrian People have blonde hair and smile at women. Accept their invitations because so far every woman I’ve met (and those willing to speak to you are few and far between) has been so kind.
The group was four women pushing fifty (perhaps older, they all dye their hair here) and one younger, twenty years old with her son. They were being looked after by Mustafa – one of their brothers, a man who wiggled his hips through the crowd. When I joined them they clasped my hand, kissed me – once on the left cheek, twice on the right and once on the left again. They spoke no English but we made simple swaps of information – our names, our ages, our nationality. They beckoned an English speaker over and he translated that they wanted me to stay with them for two nights. They would look after me, give me meals and show me Syria – it would be a pleasure and I should look on them as on my own family. They clasped my hand more and kissed me all over my face.
Two of them were sisters – Mary and Elaine – and I was going to sleep at theirs. The other women lived in the same courtyard but with male members of their families. Mary and Elaine are Arabic Christians and the other women (and Mustafa) were Palestinian Muslims. We went home and I was sat on a bench (which would become my bed). Elaine got busy in the kitchen and Mary introduced me to the courtyard who all came to see who was staying. We spoke a very limited form of international sign language plus English and they asked me mostly about my husband, his job, my plans to have children, the price of things in England, my beauty regime (why didn’t I pluck my eyebrows?) and whether I might be able to find their son(s) an English wife, or forget Johnny (my fictional husband) and marry their son(s) myself.
As we spoke Elaine brought out dish after dish of Syrian cuisine – a bean soup with a very meaty stock, rice with noodles, fresh cucumber, tomato, parsley and onion salad, bread, yoghurt, meatball and tomato stew, various baklava style sweets. I ate and I ate and when I stopped eating they encourage me to eat some more. Then it was time for sugared tea, plenty of cigarettes and more questions.
The twenty year old Eva was beautiful. She showed her shoulders and her hair and played with her son. I tried to explain to her how my life in England worked and tried to find out about her life in Syria but we mostly smiled at each other in mutual confusion.
At eleven everybody left and I was alone with my hosts – two aging women with whom I couldn’t communicate but who I could smile at. They smiled back and seemed genuinely happy that I was there. They offered me the one bed in the room which I refused and we all prepared to sleep. They noticed my I-pod and asked whether it was a phone (a fair few rich Syrians have I-phones). I explained that it was to play music and they asked to listen to some songs. They took an earpiece each and in their pyjamas swayed smiling to Come Together (The Beatles), Hey Mr Tambourine Man (Dylan) and Our House (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young).
The next day began with cigarettes at 7am and hulking smokers’ coughs. Elaine would then to escort me to the Umayyad Mosque and the Souq-al-Hamidiyya. We left in the burning heat and she kept her eye on me and her hand in mine. We went to the most famous ice-cream parlour in Damascus, we entered the mosque and we bought a loose cotton t-shirt. At each stop Elaine would not even let me take my wallet out. I didn’t want her to pay, at all, yet she wouldn’t have it any other way.
We returned home and I realised that if I was to leave the house again it would be with an escort who would insist on paying. Such an incredible kindness but also stifling to my Western ways. That evening (feeling so ungrateful) that I go and watch the football. They called their cousin, a boy named Ahmed, who escorted me to a bar and paid for me, and anyone I spoke to, all night. Again I couldn’t make it be any other way and even to try started to seem ungrateful.
The following morning I slept late and woke up confused and more than a little lonesome. Neither woman was in the room and they had locked the door to keep prying people out. I milled around their room, flicked channels on the telly and smoked some more cigarettes. I think that their kindness allowed me to experience more than anything else could have, what it is to be a Syrian woman. When they returned Elaine began to cook and I prepared them for my departure. It was a sad affair. I was feeling very confused about how to take all this kindness – frustrated by being kept inside, escorted, paid for, but also delighted that they were making me a part of their family – a part that didn’t contribute very much, but a part nonetheless. As I hugged Haifa – the Palestinian woman who had first noticed me at the concert – she began to cry. I don’t know how to place this or how to explain it.
She cried and it did ‘melt my heart’, just like the Lonely Planet said their kindness could.