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The Imperfect Traveler, Part 9:

The Syrians

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After 9/11, a number of schools and organizations asked me to speak on behalf of the Middle East and its inhabitants, specifically to deflect possible anti-Arab/anti-Muslim feelings which were running rampant.

I’m not sure how successful I was, but I’ll say the same thing now that I said then:

In my opinion, the Arab people are among the friendliest people in the world. I felt more safe there than I did anywhere else, including the South…maybe especially the South?

(My friends and I were kicked out of a bar in Houston for not being “country” enough, and that may have saved our lives…but that’s a story for another time.)

If that ever happens again, let us know.
We’ll spring for the $15.

While I was there, Syria was among the safest countries in the world.

For example, I lost my wallet in the spring of 1996 with almost $500 in it. Imagine my surprise when I received a call from the American Embassy to come down with identification so I could pick up a lost item – my wallet, with all the money still inside.

The first week of school, my colleagues recommended that I hire Naima as my maid.

She worked for a number of teachers, so I had someone reach out to her and give directions to my apartment – I would have done it myself, but she didn’t speak English, and she didn’t own a phone.

That afternoon, Naima arrived with her eight- and ten-year old daughters, which acted as interpreters.

Naima would clean my place for ten dollars a week.

Sold!!!

It was the best ten dollars I’d ever spent in my life. Naima spent about four hours a week at my house, and the place was impeccably clean, my clothes never smelled more Gain™ fresh. Heck, she even ironed my socks and underwear!

Over time, I got to know Naima.

She lived in the Christian Quarter of Old City Damascus, a single mom because her husband had left.

In desperation, she began to clean houses to provide for her daughters. She cleaned about ten places for $100 each week, and that made her middle class in Syria. Her daughters went to private school, and she owned a satellite dish for her television, and a microwave for her kitchen, but no phone. 

Naima cared for her clients as well. One time she opened my fridge and noticed I had no food inside.  “Mr. Marc!”, she exclaimed in her halting English, “You no eat! I bring you food!!” The next week she was as good as her word.

I opened my fridge and found a massive bowl of riz bazella, the “meatloaf” of Syria, made of minced meat, rice, peas, onion and almonds, cooked in butter. Each week, Naima brought me a bowl to make sure I was eating enough.

I rarely ventured down the Damascus’ souq, but when I did I made sure I left myself the entire day free. Inevitably, I’d wind up with a shop owner in their backroom drinking tea and talking about relatives they had who’d moved to New Jersey (it seems EVERYONE had a family member who lived in Jersey!).

The store would be closed for a few hours, as we talked about anything and everything, communicating in halting phrases in each other’s language. One even brought out a National Geographic from 1974 (I think), and showed a picture of that same store, run by his father. 

Taxi drivers loved to talk as well, but the insides of their taxis were nothing like I’d seen in in the States.

Their dashboards were covered with religious icons (if Christian), or a string of lights and beads that hung from the headliner and left the driver only a small area to see the road ahead. 

But my favorite story about the hospitality of the Syrians came from my trip to Aleppo.  

Before we arrived in Aleppo, my friend and I took a detour to explore a few villages with Roman ruins mentioned in the book, Monuments of Syria. We parked in one of the villages, then walked up into the hills to check out a few of the ancient ossuaries. Some young children noticed the strangers, and followed us.

Eventually, we wound up with a teenaged guide who took us to some Roman villas, and explained the history of his town as best he could. When we finished, we went back into town to hop in the car and leave. But one of the children wanted us to come over and meet his father.

We walked over to a two-roomed house built of adobe and painted white. The front yard was outlined with a white plastered wall, a cow munched quietly on some grass. We were escorted into the house by the father, followed by a group of young kids (I think they were all his children).

His wife had prepared us a late afternoon tea, then retired to the bedroom as she was veiled.

For the next hour, we exchanged pleasantries and talked about…well, what little we could communicate.

I learned he was a police officer for the town, and had only met Americans once before.

But he said he that admired America. For once, I didn’t hear about his relative in Hoboken.

A hour later, we said our goodbyes – hugs given, kisses exchanged, and a few pens given to the young kids who had followed our every move.  

When the Syrian Civil War broke out, I had been home for sixteen years.

I wondered if my Syrian friends were okay:

Hani, who was half-German and building the “best restaurant in Old City…”

Another Hani who sold me a satellite dish so I could get “the best” American TV station…

  • Rawa, a local girl I’d dated briefly.
  • The couple upstairs from my apartment who told me with a wink over riz bizella they wish I’d “keep it down” the night I had a party.
  • The store owners who cost themselves a few extra dollars for a couple cups of tea and a conversation.

Or Naima and her children.

About a year after the war broke out, a colleague of mine for the Damascus Community School posted about Naima and her daughters.

They had escaped on foot north to Turkey, and somehow onto Greece where they waited for a visa to some European country. A few months passed, and I learned they were accepted into Holland.

Today, they are citizens, and Naima’s daughters are married.

Her youngest daughter just gave birth to a second child. Naima isn’t on social media, but her one daughter is, and shared this message from her mother:

God bless Syria.

I hope someday it will be safe enough for me to visit.

Until then, I hope those who remain there are protected from harm.

Firouz and her family (Naima’s daughter)

…to be continued…


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Phylum of Alexandria
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February 23, 2023 7:28 am

It’s such a heart-wrenching feeling when loved ones, neighbors, and associates are caught in the middle of an attack or a disaster. And if you have no contact information, you’re just left wondering and worrying.

Even in more mundane circumstances, losing contact with someone can be extremely frustrating. When I was studying abroad in Japan, an old friend of mine got married and changed her name, and moved. Once I returned and tried to reach out, the contact information I had was out of date, and I had only just purchased my first cell phone, so of course she wouldn’t have that number.

A few years later, Facebook got big, so then there emerged a means to locate old friends and acquaintances. While the vast majority of those reunions proved to be fruitless endeavors once the initial curiosity was sated, when it counted that ability seemed to be nearly magical. And after a few years, that magic allowed my friend to find me (as I still didn’t know her married name). Facebook and other social media have done so much to degrade and destabilize the world in the last decade or so (notably via major revisions to their original design), but I am grateful for what the first generation of social media made possible.

What do you think it is that makes Syrian culture so friendly? I’ve never been to a Muslim-majority country, but what I’ve read and seen from them suggests that hospitality tends to be very important. Yet if that’s the case, it also flows to their Christian residents as well.

Japan is also incredibly safe (another place where no one would think of taking money from a lost wallet), and in their case, I think a lot of it has to do with their homogeneity. They have strongly enforced norms and high levels of trust. Yet Syria seems more diverse than they are, with some historical enmities potentially creating tension from within.

Whatever it is that makes things work, I do sometimes wish we could bottle it up and put it in the drinking water in various area of the US. We have no shortage of distrust and tension from within.

Pauly Steyreen
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February 23, 2023 9:50 am

I love this!!! The human stories and friendships. And all the tea (I drank an ocean of tea myself in Nepal, but I’d bet they were very different types of tea). This really made my morning… thank you ‘gue!

JJ Live At Leeds
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February 23, 2023 12:33 pm

One of the best elements of travelling is the random acts of kindness from strangers and how you get drawn into conversation when they discover you’re not local.

Glad to hear that Naima and her daughters made it out safely.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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February 23, 2023 2:33 pm

I’ve wondered how your Syrian acquaintances have fared through the war. I’m glad you were able to find some of them.

cstolliver
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February 23, 2023 4:40 pm

Thanks so much for sharing their stories with us, ‘gue. While it’s true that our globalization of communications has made us more anxious (when it comes to the after-effects of catastrophic news), it’s also made us more connected and, I hope, more empathetic. Your experience certainly shows us that.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chuck Small
cappiethedog
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February 24, 2023 12:15 am
Reply to  cstolliver

These past eight years, I find myself caring about “everything”.

cappiethedog
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February 24, 2023 12:14 am

This is a wonderful article, thegue.

I grew up around Buddhism. Pluralism was ingrained in me from an early age. I don’t attend services or anything, but I accompany my mother every year to this one event, the Memorial Day lantern floating ceremonies at Ala Moana Park. People release lanterns beachside to honor dead loved ones. I feel like I’m witnessing a utopia, if only for a little while.

The organizers, Shinyo-en, does a nice job of incorporating all the major religions of the world. Very inclusionary. I guess, that’s because Buddhism, can either be theistic or non-theistic. I only learned this after reading an interview with Richard Powers, whose last novel Bewilderment blew my mind. This greatly offends my relatives. I approach Buddhism as a philosophy. When the news cycle gets me down, I watch Darin Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

A lot of fusion going on, musically. That’s the main reason I attend the lantern floating ceremony without needing a bribe. David Byrne would love this: Eastern chants are sung in the style of the madrigal.

I’m sending this article to my cousin. I am grateful to have one person whose beliefs align perfectly with my own.

That photo of Naimi and her husband and daughter could be any family in any part of the world.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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February 24, 2023 8:14 am

Thanks for this article, thegue. While cultural differences definitely can make some places less comfortable, what little travels that I’ve taken convince me that people are great no matter where you go in the world. I liked learning about these characters. It reminds me of all of those “character actors” in my life…people that I got to know for a short time in my life and now can’t even remember their names. I wonder how they are now? I wonder if they knew that I appreciated my time with them.

(By the way, my daughter left her wallet full of $200+ dollars in a truck stop restroom. I went back to retrieve it for her, and was happy that the sales clerk gave it to me with all of the money still intact. I went online and gave that worker a glowing review to the company).

dutchg8r
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February 27, 2023 12:08 pm

It’s tales like yours, gue, that need to be shared to remind folks how human nature is human nature. It’s very easy for people worldwide to get caught up in living in their bubble and believe ‘others’ are the enemy in some capacity. Traveling is the greatest way to reaffirm we’re all really pretty much the same on this big rock. And it’s a shame in this day and age where we think our society is so advanced that there are still so many wars going on, uprooting so many people’s lives and scattering refugees around the world.

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