June 6, 2010, was a Sunday, and I started the morning with breakfast at the Al Rabie Hotel in Damascus, Syria. One of the most beautiful interiors of any hotel/hostel I’ve stayed at. The following is excerpted from my journal, though “Sarah” is not her real name. This is but a glimpse through one tiny and imperfect window — that of a traveler new to a country.
Damascus, Syria (June 6, 2010)
Went to immigration after breakfast and, in half an hour and after getting papers signed in several offices, had a visa extension. So I’ve gone from 15 days to 30 days.
Reached the Christian Quarter about 11:00 a.m., but most services were long over by then. I did walk inside St. Mary’s church and the Melkite church.
The Armenian service was still underway, so I spent half an hour in that church too.
In 2010, more than 100,000 Armenian Christians were estimated to live in Syria.
At Bab al-Salam, one of the seven gates to the Old City, I met a shoeshiner with no legs. Really sweet guy. We drank tea, took a couple pictures.
Then a 12-year-old came by, speaking excellent English, and invited me to her family’s home, where they treated me to lunch…and also a frustrating conversation with Sarah, the mom, who used to teach English at university. Among her conversation points:
- Jews want to take over all the world, or at least the Middle East
- A year or two ago she’d have killed an American if one had been in front of her because she was so angry about the Iraq war.
- If she could visit the United States, she would secretly kill Jews.
- When George Bush and the Algerian president met, Bush proposed to the president that Islam remove several ayahs from the Quran that had to do with fighting — he wanted to change the Quran.
- She supports the Taliban; what they do is justified because it is a reaction to the United States.
In reply to her blasting critique of how Israel took the land by force in ’48, and genuinely curious what she would say, I asked how this was different from Islamic armies spreading out from Arabia and taking political control, slowly altering the status quo so that today the Middle East is mostly Muslim, not least because of the 2nd class status Christians were given.
Sarah boards people for income on the side and offered me a room for 500 pounds ($11/night). I’d love to do it — for our many disagreements, I’d love to better understand her way of seeing the world — but I like the dorm at Al Rabie for the chance to interact with other travelers. Will decide what to do later.
I left Sarah’s feeling sad and discouraged. My experiences are only anecdotal since I’ve been in Syria less than 72 hours, but so far the animosity toward Israel in conversations here is more vitriolic, more personal, than similar conversations I might have in Egypt. But, Israel no longer has any Egyptian land; it does still have the Golan Heights (such a pretty place). The receptionist at Al Rabie told me, “Do you know the Israelis have a sign we can see from Quneitra that says, ‘Welcome to Israel.’ They do it just to make us angry.”
I took a few more pictures around town and then returned to the hostel for about an hour, then made that long walk back to the old city to Narcissus Cafe at 6:00 p.m. Worked on my computer there till about 9:30 p.m. Stopped for a schwerma by al-Nawfara Cafe on the way home.