…And just like that, without fully knowing what we were doing or what would happen next, we were in Syria. It felt so alien and at the same time so safe, although we knew the mass media would not agree. The border control officers bid us a warm goodbye and were sure to recommend to us a famous ice cream shop in Damascus. “Don’t leave without trying pistacchio with nuts,” called the officer who had searched our bags, as we headed toward the bus stop. There we would take yet another ramshackle minivan to a town called Ayn al-Arab (Kobanî), on our way to Aleppo, and then we would travel by train to Damascus.
Ayn al-Arab was a typical Syrian countryside city. Everything was a bit run-down, a bit too noisy, and a bit too much the color of sand. Everyone looked at us with astonishment, surely because they had never seen a Western tourist wander through their dusty streets. For the first time, we saw women in niqabs; they looked like black ghosts, with almost every inch of their skin covered. The veils left uncovered only a tiny window that revealed their brown, almond-shaped eyes. Even in the scorching heat, the women wore matching black gloves and shoes. Often they carried babies in their arms, or guided two or three children through the town.
After a short wait at the bus terminal, we hopped on a van to Aleppo and left Ayn al-Arab. The driver greeted us repeatedly, “Welcome, my friends, welcome!” Next to us, dark-eyed children stared at us endlessly. The ride through the ill-maintained Syrian roads was bumpy and seemed to take forever, thanks to the driver, who constantly found friends along the way. He couldn’t help but stop and chat with them, each time announcing an unneeded 5-minute break to the passengers.
This is how, so soon after our arrival, we learned our first lessons in Syrian culture. First, nothing here ever goes according to plan. Second, simple things take twice as much time as they would in any other part of the world. And third, Syrian timing is not your timing.
Aleppo was dazzling. We arrived after dark, and still had to take a taxi to the center of the city. The taxi left us right under the Bab al-Faraj, a tall Ottoman-style clock tower that used to be one of the symbols of the city. Now, in 2017, nothing that had surrounded it at the time of our visit remains standing. Even the tower itself has been damaged during the recent bombings, but in 2011 it was a majestic sight, overseeing the crazy Aleppine traffic and the somewhat out-of-place palm trees on each corner. The cobblestones of the old town’s streets each told a different story; the souqs, or marketplaces, smelled strongly of spices and of times long past, when it seemed that the Ottoman empire could rule the entire world.
In the souqs, customers and salesmen greeted each other with “as salaam alaikum” -peace be upon you-, to which the response was “alaikum as salaam“. The small shops sold everything from tea, coffee, spices, and traditional handmade olive-oil soaps to carpets with impossibly intricate designs and embroidered silk scarves. Sometimes children would mind the shops while their parents were away for the afternoon; that’s how safe Aleppo was a few years ago.
Except for some people advising us to avoid Hama and Homs but never saying why, we never had reason to feel in danger. We certainly never got the feeling that we were in a country in which one of the worst civil wars of our time would soon break out. Random people in the street often invited us into their houses and treated us to cups of hot tea, just because we were the only tourists around and they were curious about us. It didn’t matter that they didn’t speak any English, nor we any Arabic. Smiles, hand gestures and body language were the only tools needed to communicate.
At the train stations, employees behind ticket counters lazily served customers while they ate dried apricots and drank a form of mate (not mate by South American standards; but mate to them nonetheless). Muffled Arab pop music blared in the background. Kids ran through the ancient streets in their favorite soccer jerseys, bearing the names of players that had no business in this Middle Eastern open-air museum: Neymar, Shevchenko, Messi, Ronaldinho, Özil, Suárez. However, it was clear that the Syrians needed to watch their actions and words. There was always a portrait of Bashar al-Assad on display somewhere, whether at home or in the shops, and few people dared voice their true thoughts about the government. In the main square of Aleppo, a statue of Hafez al-Assad stood solemnly against a background of Syrian flags fluttering in the wind: a true exhibition of demagoguery and despotism.
We arrived in Damascus on a warm morning and booked a hotel that we stumbled upon in the old city center. After billing us for four nights, the owner invited us to join him and his family for breakfast. He spoke little English, and his family only knew Arabic. We sat on the carpet next to his three kids, while his wife brought plate after plate of traditional Syrian specialties: a mezze (multi-course meal) of shawarma meat, hummus, lakhma bread, halloumi cheese, and fatthoush salad, along with many dishes unknown to us. The breakfast was truly delicious, and was one more proof of how warm Syrian hearts are. However, putting an end to it was not an easy task: Middle Easterners take their hospitality seriously, so we had to truly insist that we were full and couldn’t eat another bite. The truth is, by then we only wanted to rest after a sleepless night on the train from Aleppo.
The dimly-lit Old Town of Damascus was still waiting for us in the evening, so we went out for dinner and a walk. We saw wealthy families eating in expensive restaurants, shopkeepers closing their businesses for the day, old men playing backgammon over a cup of tea in crammed bars and male friends strolling around, holding hands as is the custom in the Middle East. Further from the busy restaurant scene, almost no sound could be heard in the deserted old town. It felt empty now, even gloomy. Our only company in these dark alleys was the scent of apple tobacco coming from the hookahs in the lively bars we’d just left behind.
Eventually, we found our way back to the cheerful Damascene night. We had a fresh carrot juice at a café, and discovered the last story-teller of the Middle East theatrically reciting a tale in Arabic. The old man wore a hat like a Moroccan fez, and held a stick in one hand. The other held the book he was reading from. We fell under the spell of his story without even noticing, and without understanding a word he was saying: his hoarse voice thundered on and on in the big room where everyone listened in silence. We had sat enthralled for about half an hour when, abruptly, the loud chatter resumed and merry-makers went back to their Backgammon games. The old story-teller had gone silent and had come down from his throne in the center of the room. The tale he was telling had ended. Syria, however, is a tale never meant to end.