I had just been kidnapped. Bundled into a car and taken to an unknown destination somewhere in the old city section of Homs. My kidnapper loomed over me, knife in hand.
“You must eat more,” he yelled, slamming the knife forcefully onto the table. “More!”
Dutiful hostage that I am, I forced another spoonful into my mouth.
Enforced eating isn’t a usual hostage torture procedure but then there are no dank cells or handcuffs here. Instead it’s just endless cups of tea, huge plates groaning under the weight of food and more smiles from the gathered crowd than you could ever expect.
This was my Syria.
Yet again, I’d been kidnapped by a local family and brought home for lunch.
All I’d wanted to do was buy a bottle of water when I wandered into Nizar’s shop in the midday heat. Instead, he’d quickly locked the shop, hustled me into his car and brought me home to meet his family. And here I was now in their living room, about to explode from food, with his wife Hiyam clucking reprovingly “you’re too skinny, too skinny.” They sat there, my hostage-takers, shaking their heads mournfully as I desperately tried to clear my plate.
Whether being plied with sugar-coated almonds by a sweet vendor in the souq, taking the time to drink tea with the caretaker of a lonely ruin, or becoming the surprise guest of honour at a family lunch, there was a warmth, and joyous spontaneity, to travel here that isn’t found elsewhere.
“Ahlan wa sahlan” (hello and welcome) the Syrians said. And they truly meant it.
I had finally cleared my plate. Nizar lit a victory cigarette. Hiyam clapped her hands approvingly while the rest of the family grinned. We sat and chatted over syrupy cups of Arabic coffee as the afternoon rolled on and turned into evening. In the end I got up to leave amid pleadings to stay the night.
We took photos. Babies were plonked into my lap and grandma patted my hand affectionately as the camera clicked and flashed. I staggered out into the twilight, with a stomach stuffed with food and a heart full to the brim with the kindness of strangers.
In a time when Syria is headline news for all the wrong reasons I believe it’s really important to remember what it was like before this tragedy began. Ask anyone who ever travelled through Syria and most will tell you it is one of their favourite countries. I wrote this piece in 2009 and it first appeared, slightly modified, in The Independent’s ‘On The Road’ column. The editor got cold-feet about my use of the term ‘kidnapped’ at the beginning of the story and took it out. My whole point of using the kidnapping analogy was the irony of so many people being terrified of going to Syria when all of us who travelled there regularly knew it was one of the most hospitable and welcoming places in the world. Now I’m republishing the original version here on my blog so that we remember that Syria. The one where total strangers were welcomed like long lost friends. I don’t know what’s happened to Nizar, Hiyam and their family. I lost contact with them soon after the fighting started. I do know that the part of Homs they lived in has been reduced to rubble.