Monday, October 26, 2015

Memories of a lost Syria 2000

This painting of the old part of Damascus sits on my desk.  Every time I look at it, I am reminded of the sins against that wonderful country. The region has a history going back over 3000 years before Christ, with a rich, rich culture that has a depth that only many western nations could hope for.

I cry for that wonderful country.

I cry for the people whom I know that are still there living and whom I  love.

I cry for the refugees.

Why don't those that reject them realize it was the Western world with their attacks and bombings that have created these refugees? Why don't they realize that they could as easily, with a change in world power could be refugees too?

Here are memories of my first trip to Syria. Later trips were to see people that I cared for.

If someone had told me when I was a little girl growing up in Reading that one day I would peek in a Bedouin tent as sheep grazed nearby or that I would watch the Syrian army on manoeuvres near the Iraqi border, I’d have told them they were totally nuts. 

But thanks to Marina, I did all that and more. She was from Damascus and in 2000 was a neighbor and now a family member of choice. 

The destruction of this wonderful country, with its wonderful, educated population is beyond a war crime. That much of this lives only in my heart and memory is a great tragedy, not just for me, not just for Syrians, but for the world.

Palmyrian’s Roman ruins, etc. now under attack

Marina hired a car to take us through the dessert to some of Syria’s most historic sites. I’ve gotten use to seeing traffic signs for Paris and Milan, but Beirut and Baghdad were new. Almost as amusing was seeing a billboard with a totally veiled woman and the slogan in English was “German Fashion for you.” 

Our driver stopped at the Baghdad café and it so resembled the movie that I expected to hear the plaintive title song come across the dessert sand. Palmyria is a restored ruin going back to before and during Roman times. Isis has destroyed some of it.

Unfortunately, I was in the Tomb of the Three Brothers (which holds 360 graves) dating back to the two centuries B.C. when Saladin’s revenge struck. I desecrated the stairs and would have been perfectly content to have become the 361st laid to rest. 

As Marina steered me across the street to the toilets at the Cham Palace, I told her that the VIP on our car stood for Vomiting in Palmyria. 

I became a devotee of Syrian toilets, which are usually a key-hole shaped ceramic hole, tiled in with a hose for cleaning yourself and then the area. 

A person outside often hands you ONE tissue in return for money to pat yourself dry. An advantage of this type of toilet, is that it precludes anyone from saying to the person on the other side of the door “I’ll be out in one more chapter.”

St. George’s Monastery

The Monastery has been on a green mountain side since pagan times. The Ottoman killed all the early Christians who’d taken it over, but in the last century, the Syrian Orthodox Church has claimed it. 

Marina booked us into cells there, mine fortunately next to the toilets. As I lay on my cot I heard the Gregorian chants of the monks at Easter prayer. 

Dinner in the refractory was a silent affair except for the Bible reader. The priests fast during lent eating only once a day and then eat no meat or oil. However, the hummus, beans, salad looked like it would have been a great meal, but Marina insisted until my system adjusted I was to eat only boiled potatoes and pita bread. She relented and let me chew the fresh mint.

The monastery has a beautiful icon which was stolen and recovered by Interpol. The next morning when we were about to leave, the Bishop asked to see her. The monks prepared me a breakfast just because I was sick and Marina stood guard to make sure that no parasite from the food on the table would join any friends that might be lingering in my system.


Throughout the trip I was constantly aware that I was in an ancient civilization. Walking in old Damascus on Straight Street, I knew was mentioned in the Bible. To stand in the church where the head of John the Baptist is allegedly buried, reinforces this, but nothing prepared me for Ebla. It was discovered in 1964. So far they’ve uncovered three civilizations going back 4000 B.C. and 15,000 letters on clay tablets. The guide was a Bedouin who spoke both French and English, called me madam, and showed me where the olive oil had been pressed so long ago and an example of ancient Greek graffiti. 

(Note: After a later visit I was given the contact with the Italian who translated the tablets. I visited him in Rome and had wanted to write a novel but with the war, it is impossible. The guide on the second trip welcomed me into his home and into places that would not have been accessible to the average tourist.)


I saw the 1950 green Chevy that my ex-husband used to pick me up in when were in high school and
my first car a 1951 grey Pontiac and a old dodge with fins. In fact I’ve seen every car I ever had and a lot more. 

Most were reincarnated as taxis. I rode in more taxis the last two weeks then I  the rest of my life. To cross Damascus was under $1.00. 

We also took a Bus from Aleppo to Damascus, a four-hour trip. It was necessary to show your passport or identity card to buy a ticket. 

Ours was equipped with a movie, a sort of Egyptian Laurel and Hardy.

Restaurants and singers

Once Marina said I could eat again, I fell in love with a dish made with brown beans, chick peas, olive oil, garlic and yogurt. Unlike Switzerland where 10 p.m. is considered late, many restaurants have singers that start at 10 or 11. 

One singer sang tunes made popular by the likes of Englebert Humperdink, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley. The second did Charles Azanavour. 

Syrian singers combined rock and Arabian music.

I tried a water pipe. The waiter brought an extra mouthpiece. This tobacco was strawberry flavored. Young boys come with a brazier, adding hot wedges of tobacco to the pipes. A five-course meal for six of us came to $35 which would not have bought one dinner in an equivalent Geneva restaurant.

Veiled and mosque sitting

One of my neighbors in Geneva said once that she really believed as part of her religion she should be veiled. Yet as a feminist I’ve always found the concept difficult, but I refuse to judge others by my point of view. In Damascus the veil is not that common in comparison to some other cities. Older women are usually covered in black while younger women may wear long coats and scarves and the youngest just scarves. However to enter the large mosque in Damascus, I had to be scarved,veiled and shoeless. 

The Mosque was beautiful and peaceful. Sitting, my heels well aware of the soft carpet. Some Iranian pilgrims were sitting listening to Koran and crying. I couldn’t feel what they were feeling, only feel them feeling. How wonderful that they could find such joy.

Good Friday and Uncle Peter

Each of the Christian churches had a parade starting with the Flag of Syria followed by the church flags, the church band (some which have over a 100 musicians of all ages) and then statues. I was with Yara (who came to Geneva  to see Marina twice, once when Llara was here, and we invited our friends Sara and Tara just to be perverse) and we went to her Baptist church. 

She grabbed her Uncle Peter to translate. This man is in his late 70s and as he told the story of the resurrection, his face lit from within. He is balding with a few grey strands and a fringe, but it is a beautiful face. “I hope you understood my bad English,” he whispered at the end and insisted I go downstairs with the rest of congregation, where the minister glommed onto me. He had read English Literature before becoming a minister (I think half of Damascus studied English and American Literature and know it better even though I too majored in the subject. Their grasp of the American culture is truly impressive.)

Tooing and froing

Marina had tried to prepare me for the women. During the many visits they prepare food, talk, listen to music, etc. I spent one wonderful afternoon in Yara’s mother’s courtyard with several women. We were all opening nuts as she was baking sweets. 

The fountain in the courtyard was bubbling, the jasmine hung heavy on the air and their three turtles were scoffing down what vegetation they could find.

It doesn’t matter what time of day, lentil soup, fool, hommus, pita bread, kibi, tabouli, etc. is always ready to be served.

And they drink maté. A small glass is half filled with this grass like herb. Sugar is added and a few shakes of cardamom. A silver straw is used to sip it. Water is added several times before the maté is deemed no good and the procedure starts over. 

The support the women give each other is incredible. Even working women are usually done by 2 in the afternoon when most offices close for the day. Stores/Souks reopen after 5.

Ladies of the English Class

 Marina’s aunt has been taking English lessons.. She encouraged several of her friends who are in their late 60s and 70s to do this also, and they decided to show me old Damascus. Well we saw the place St. Paul was lowered in the basket, the souks, etc .They took me into the atiliers where they were actually making the furniture, the rugs, blowing the glass. Not the ones for the tourists, but the real ones.


Except for cars, appliances, and Benneton (who makes many of their products in Syria) I saw no brand names. No McDonalds, No Coca Cola, no Pepsi, no Nikes, etc. Almost everything is bought from small stores or the souks. And yes, I did get a chance to bargain. Yara helped me do my Christmas shopping. I also bought Yara something she wanted. She thought she was picking it out for Susan, whom I told her had identical taste to her.

The National Museum

On my “You can’t leave Syria until you see the synagogue in the museum” instruction from Marina, Yara and I  popped into the National Museum. When we got to the ticket booth we were told we didn’t need them. It was too close to closing. 

As we were walking out with the rest of the people, a guard pulled us aside and took us on our own tour of the museum after it was closed. I did see the synagogue, and several special exhibits. Someone in Yara’s French class works there and saw us. He sent someone down to give us a special tour after the museum closed.


To shake your head no, you tilt your head backwards instead of shaking it side to side and/or make a tittitit noise.

In a restaurant ladies room, a fully veiled Moslem woman touched her scarf and pointed at me. I thought she wanted me to cover my head with the scarf I was wearing around my shoulders. I looked confused. Then she touched my hair and smiled. The woman with her said, “It’s beautiful.”

In one town they only speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. There was a sign that said in English “Sandwiches, Cassettes.” I loved the juxtaposition.


Maria said...

You've been blessed with having been able to see and experience an ancient country with wonderful people. I will probably never be able to visit, and my daughter might be able to only when she is old, many years from now. But by then, much of the history will have been obliterated and the people that remain will, most likely, be resentful and withdrawn because of all that will have happened to them. I can't bear to hear of what the ISIS idiots do to the people and the history. When it comes on the news I leave the room because a rage builds in me and tears come to my eyes.

Merc said...

Bless you, DL, for this chronicle.