Snapshots of Syria

Daily news reports of more violence in Homs; grainy video shows explosions and be-rubbled concrete. I was there, I think. But really, was I? The name familiar but the town recalled now only in the broadest brush strokes, memories reduced to a series of vignettes.

A brief internet search reveals a population of 1.6 million, conflicting with my memory of a much smaller place, my experience limited to one stretch of main road. Arrival in a crammed minivan from Aleppo with a crazed driver at the wheel. Walking a kilometre or so to an anonymous hotel where I take a bed on the rooftop. Dinner undoubtedly a schewarma – meat from the spinning stick and sauce, wrapped in flat bread, dipped in the greasy drippings pooled under the meat and then grilled. Later on likely smoking a shisha and drinking cardamom-spiced Turkish coffee in a fluorescent tube lit a’hawha. Posters of President Basher al-Assad certainly everywhere. Looking benign, somewhat awkward. Like a soft toy almost-ophthalmologist; inoffensive in a weak-chinned, small-eyed kind of way.

I cast my mind back, searching for any signs of impending unrest but all I come up with is a blurry montage of friendly faces, people stopping me in the street to pose for photographs or ask me where I came from, their features indistinct. Aware of the unreliability of my strained memory, and the risk of fabricating more details, I look back at my few photographs.

The boys in the market in Homs– proudly manning their stall alone – help me plan the next day’s picnic at Krak de Chevalier. Tomatoes, peaches, bananas and then posing beaming for a photograph, the end result slightly out of focus (like my memory) and harshly lit by pop-up flash. The next day exploring Krak and the proprietor of the hotel next to the old crusader castle inviting me in for a drink. But no, I had places to be, no time to stop. On to Malula – a village where the inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, visiting some chapels, a brief stop just to say I’d been there, then to Mar Mussa, a monastery in the mountains.

On the way to Damascus, in another crowded minibus now. Stopping at a petrol station, I get out to buy water and sweets. At the counter the shopkeeper refuses my money. Someone has already paid my bill, not the first time that’s happened, this time it’s the fourteen year old boy whom I shared the room with the night before in the monastery.

Eid, the end of Ramadan celebrations and everyone dressed in their finery. Children drinking juices, boys parading with their new BB guns, teenagers smoking cigars. Loud fireworks have me on edge, making me aware for the first time that despite the friendliness of the people, I’m  subconsciously uncomfortable in this ‘pariah’ state. Too many years of unflattering news reports has somehow filtered into my thoughts.

And today more news reports, explosions, killings. Names of important people and organisations, the UN, Free Syrian Army, al-Assad, Putin, Hague, Annan. But this isn’t the Syria I remember.


2 Comments on “Snapshots of Syria”

  1. Terence Hayden says:

    Good stuff Stranger…. nice contrast to the rash of propaganda.

  2. chris022 says:

    Very interesting. Nice to read about Homs and not see words like bombing, rebels and unconfirmed reports. As an aside nice to see you avoided the cliche of road when describing how you got to Damascus.

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