The kindness of Syrian strangers

There was one day in Syria when Linh and I were just continually astounded at the amazing kindness of strangers. We didn't expect much from Syria; We were there only because it was between Lebanon and Turkey, and we only stayed three days, but our third day was without a doubt the most amazing day of our entire trip.

We set out in the morning to Qala'at Samaan, which as it turns out would have been an amazing trip just for the scenery, architecture, and history. But what really made this day special were the people. The first person who was kind and helpful to us was a man who works at the hotel where we stayed (the aptly named Tourist Hotel), whom we asked for directions. He wrote down the name of our destination in Arabic (which turns out to be قلعة سمعان) and told us to go the bus station and get a service taxi.

We did so, and when we got there, we went up to a police officer and showed him what our hotelier had written. He smiled and led us through throngs of loud taxi drivers all trying to convince us that to ride with them. He arrived at a beat up white van and motioned to us to get in. We thanked him very much (shukran) and he responded with a warm “Welcome to Syria”, probably one of the few English phrases he knew. Upon reflection I'm not sure if it was at all wise to trust this police officer. In the USA, I am blessed with police largely free of corruption, but when I look at a guy who looks something like this (not my photo), I am somewhat suspicious. But on this day in Syria, this police officer was very helpful.

We got into the the old van, and all the men inside rearranged themselves so that I was the only one sitting directly next to Linh, who was the only woman in this packed service taxi. On our way there, some of the men talked with each other, while others slept. Along the way some told the driver to let them off, handed him a few dirty, crumpled up bills (the mint doesn't seem to replace old bills very often in Syria), slid the door open, and walked away down an increasingly pastoral, sand- and olive-colored landscape.

After driving along like this for ten of fifteen minutes, a man sitting behind us raised his voice to communicate with the driver. They had a short conversation, and the man handed the driver some old, dirty money. We took that as our queue to pay, as well, and so we asked the driver “How much?” (one of the few Arabic phrases we learned). To our surprise, our fellow passenger, the one who had just  given the driver some money, turned to us and started shaking his head and said “finished”. He had paid our fare. We were surprised and grateful as we rode on in silence.

The more I think about this, the more it stuns me. Syria is a poor country (a few spots below Guatemala, a few spots above Sri Lanka ), much poorer than the USA, so right off the bat, a Syrian buying a couple of Americans a taxi ride seems a little strange. Moreover, given the situation in which this occurred, the relative wealth disparity is obvious, even without referencing GDP figures: this man most likely is not wealthy enough to own a car, and we are wealthy enough to afford inter-continental travel. With all that in mind, this man's unprompted generosity to two complete and utter strangers is just completely mind-blowing. But the most mind-blowing was yet to come.

We arrived at the ruined church / fortress, got out of the taxi, paid the foreigner price to get in (a practice common in many of the countries I've visited recently) and started to walk around. Linh felt a little ill, as sometimes happens when traveling, so I walked around on my own and took some pictures. After snapping away with my Sony like the Japanese tourists gawking at The Campanile, I went and  sat down on a bench with Linh and just enjoyed what would have been people-watching at any place nearly this cool in Western Europe, but what here was more like people-searching. The place was mostly empty; there seem to have been very few tourists in Lebanon and Syria in early June 2009, but there were a few Syrian visitors strolling through.

We thought we were being rather inconspicuous, sitting in the shade and just looking around at the few other tourists there, but apparently we stuck out enough to catch the attention of one man, who came over towards us, walking with his son by his side. He was a rather big man, taller than myself, and certainly overweight, but he had none of that stretched out or flabby look that I see so often in the USA. He looked mostly like a huge craggy piece of clay, wearing dirty, dirt-colored clothes that I could imagine a farmer or a construction worker wearing. The boy, who we gathered was his son, looked about eleven years old.

He sat down next to us on the bench, and with his son standing by his side, he began speaking to us:
“Salaam Allaekum”.

“Wa-allaekum salaam”, I replied. Unfortunately, that was (and is) about the extent of my ability to communicate in Arabic. Encouragingly, he began in English.

“Where are you from?”, came his careful but heavily-accented words.

“USA”, I said.

“America”, said Linh.

“America, welcome, Ahlen wa-sahlen, welcome, welcome, welcome to Syria!”, said the man, who I was definitely warming up to.

He tried to tell us where he was from, but we didn't really understand. He asked us how long we were staying in Syria.

“Three days, we leave tomorrow, tomorrow we go to Turkey”, said Linh. “Gaziantep”.

“Turkey, I live close Turkey”, said the man. He continued to tell us about where he lives, but mostly in Arabic, and we didn't understand. We took out our Lonely Planet guide and turned to the map of the area surrounding Aleppo and showed it to him, hoping that he could find his village on it.

Unfortunately, looking at an unfamiliar map, with all the labels written in an unfamiliar alphabet, this man wasn't able to find his village. Despite this failure, perhaps to redeem himself in our eyes, he turned to a page introducing some Syrian city, and began to read aloud. He managed to sound out most of the words correctly, but it was fairly obvious that he had no idea what he was reading. Still, I was impressed and amused. He gave up and apologized for his English being so “weak”.

“Our Arabic is weak”, we replied.

“Arabi weak, English weak”, he said, laughing as he pointed first to us, and then to himself.

“Tomorrow you go Turkey?”, he asked.

“Yes”, we said.

He gestured to Linh, asking to use her pen and journal. He began to write, very slowly, using all of his concentration. When he was finished he showed us what he had written, which looked mostly like scribbles to me, until he started explaining it.

“My name”, he said, pointing to a scribble that said ???? (I'll fill this once I find that journal!)
“My village”, he said, pointing to another scribble. “Near Turkey. Tomorrow, you come my village, ask me, come my house, eat with me, then go Turkey”.

Linh and I were momentarily dumbstruck, simply looking at each other in amazement at this completely unprompted invitation to share a meal in this stranger's home.

Needing to have some reply, we said “Thank you”, and “Maybe, we will see”.

At this, he ended the conversation by saying goodbye and walking away, which was probably a good thing; both of us had exhausted our ability to communicate, and he had exhausted his ability to be extraordinarily generous.

We sat there, on the bench on the hilltop before the beautiful ruins of Qala'at Samaan, pondering for a second, remarking to each other how amazing the encounter with the man was. After a while Linh felt well enough to get up and walk around and see the site. Earlier, it was overcast, and unfortunately that's when I took most of my pictures, but now the sun was coming out, making the mottled and discolored stone arches and columns all the more beautiful.