Remembering the real Syria

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.

Before; images of Syria

“When we cross the border can you guarantee my safety?” The American said.

I rolled my eyes. “What do you mean?”

“When we get to Syria. Am I going to be safe?”

“Why wouldn’t you be safe?”

“I’m an American. Don’t they want to kill me?”

“The only thing they’ll fucking kill you with is kindness.” I said.

I fanned myself with my passport. We were stuck in a queue on Jordan’s Ramtha border. Tendrils of sweat raced their way down my back.

At the time I just wished he’d shut up and sit down while I did my job and got the group’s passports exit-stamped. Now I just wish the clocks could be turned back. That I could have those same annoying border conversations again and show people the Syria I know.

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A week on from that conversation, that same American had performed a hip hop dance for a bunch of very amused (and bemused) kids in the back streets of Damascus, been stunned by Palmyra’s columned ruins marching across the eastern desert, walked on top of the ramparts at Krak des Chevaliers, and been convinced by me to have a traditional barber shop shave in an Aleppo old city alleyway.

He came back to the hotel, slick with oil and reeking of the barber shop’s cheap cologne.

“He didn’t kill me!” He said. “And I told him I was American and everything. All he wanted to do was make me drink too much tea.”

On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.

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The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.

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