Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Thoughts on Syria

I've just spent a couple of weeks in Syria. The family were a little nervous because the situation is so unstable in the Middle East, but my time there was good and I was sorry to leave.

The general atmosphere of a place always matters a lot to me; I really like to feel that people are predisposed to be friendly and open. And while I don't want to get embroiled in the extremely sad and complicated issues of Middle Eastern politics, and I don't want to generalise too much,  I can  at least say that as a non-Arab woman I was treated tolerantly and with great respect and politeness at all times. In fact, Syria is historically a meeting place of cultures, and it has a large Syrian Orthodox Christian population. (For a bit more background on the history , go to here ).

The ordinary people I encountered were courteous, honest and friendly. If there was a problem, they'd try to make things work. If I was lost, they tried to help. There is very little personal crime, and I never felt unsafe at all - even in the darkest little alleyways of old Damascus. Nor was I hassled to buy, except occasionally in the most touristy areas, and I was never cheated.

Because of US sanctions, there are very few signs of the Americanization you find in many other parts of the world - no MacDonalds! I did see one shop with a Coca cola sign but most Syrian shopping is still done in the souk, at very small local stores or in the part of town which specialises in whatever it is you want to buy.

I like this Middle Eastern way of doing things. If you want chandeliers you go to one area, car repairs can be found in another, inlaid furniture in another, second-hand clothes in another.

As you walk around the streets you're interacting with people all the time, and there is always something interesting to see.

I was struck by these people in a doorway at night: the man in a chair, his two womenfolk sitting on the steps, and the shopkeeper.

You may come across a group of workmen sitting by the roadway with their tools, perhaps, waiting to be hired for the day.

You may see a perfumier mixing fragrances, children playing some elaborate game, a woman carrying a huge bag of flatbreads on her head, a row of sheeps' heads staring morosely from a butcher's table, a band of Ottoman musicians celebrating a wedding, or a couple of teenagers sitting in the doorway of an old building, cheerfully boiling up tea on a little stove.

Although many buildings are old and decrepit, they are usually kept extremely clean, and I've never had any problems eating out. Prices generally are very low, except of course for imports. And of course there are the sights. 

Apart from Damascus (the oldest inhabited city in the world),  Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers are perhaps the most famous. It's a paradise for archaeologists....

But there are so many other, smaller places which are entirely fascinating.

and thought provoking, too.


  1. This is very thoughtful and fascinating--thanks! I can't wait to see your photos.

  2. It sounds fascinating, and lovely. I'm looking forwards to the photos (except of sheep-heads, I'll skip past those as quickly as I can.....)

  3. Showing a different side of Syria


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