Two years ago I was sitting high up the citadel in Aleppo, Syria sipping strong black tea with sugar and watching the birds go by. I was on a journey from Cairo to Beirut with stops in Jordan and Syria.
I went through the souk in Damascus. The countless little stalls are tucked in corners narrow paths are winding their way through the halls, women passing by, tea sellers shouting and the smell of spices is in the air – all of this accumulating to the greatest market I have ever been to. The souk is covered by an iron roof with plenty of holes giving way to rays of sunlight that make the dust flicker in front of ones eyes creating this unique and delightful atmosphere. A local explained that the holes stem from French Fighter planes that attacked the capital in the 1920s during the uprisings for independence. Whether true or not, it gives the place a chilling romance.
I have experienced Syria as an exciting and great country very hospitable and friendly. However, I have also caught a rare glimpse of the oppression and underlying tension this country experienced all along. I travelled to Hama to enquire about a massacre that took place there more than thirty years ago. Hama witnessed a gruesome event in 1982, when Assad (the first) killed about 20 000 people in an attempt to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood – a threat to his autocracy. Naively, I asked the owner of my hostel, whether there are some remnants I could visit. He nervously shushed me quiet and whispered, that no one asks those kind of questions. He eyed me suspiciously every time I passed the counter.
Hama was an eerie city, some walls remaining of the old city, but the center now decorated as an amusement park with white washed walls and swings and new restaurants lining the river. The old Noria (water wheels) from the Byzantine empire still turning the Orontes river…
I also spend two nights in a monastery morphed out of the mountains. Everyone, whether passing traveller, soul searcher or religious enthusiast was welcome, got food, drink and accomodation as long as one obeyed some basic rules, such as a silence time in the afternoon and during meditation and participation in the monasteries work was expected. This could be food preparation or goat herding or collecting waste. I just heard that Padre Paolo the charismatic leader of the cross-religious and international conglomerate had to flee Syria. This was reported this week on Al-Jazeera and provoked me to publish this post. It added a personal edge to a tragedy that is usually beyond imagination.
I will refrain from attempting any political analysis which can only be insufficient and flawed. I publish this in support for everyone struggling to define and rebuild their country. My thoughts are with Padre Paolo and the Syrian people.