6 April 2010
How to describe this experience? They say travel is the fastest way to broaden the mind, but I could never have believed how this trip to Syria would change my perceptions of an entire people.
Syria is the home of the devil. 'The Axis of Evil', as that notable Arabic scholar George W once said. All my life I've been brought up to regard Syria as the great enemy. And what do I find?
It sounds romantic. It sounds implausible. But in ten days I have not come across a single Syrian I didn't like. Everywhere I have been, everyone I have met.
On the street a man gets into my taxi to explain to the driver where I am staying - and pays the bill. I meet some budding and talented actors who prove to be the gentlest group of men you could hope to meet. A shopkeeper who reveals his lost love for a Swiss girl. Another who describes himself as "the only gay in the souk". An artist who invites us back the next evening to dine with his friends. A Bedouin family who take us to heart. And on and on.
I see family life like I have only seen in Israel (the sad irony does not escape me). Large families having picnics in the woods, six of them riding one scooter, thirteen in one taxi - with five children smiling out of the open boot.
Children come up on the street to practise their English. I can't help laughing at some of the phrases in their book: "My pyjamas have not been ironed properly".
It takes three months to learn how to drive. I understand why. It must take enormous skill to drive at 90 mph four inches behind the lorry in front of you, swerving left to squeeze between the truck and the concrete barrier, swerving right to avoid the scooter travelling on the wrong side of the motorway towards you. Forget white water rafting - the five hour drive from Damascus to Aleppo is the white knuckle ride of your life.
Syria is one extraordinary historic site after another. The finest Crusader castles in the world, the greatest of Roman treasures -entire cities which require no imagination to visualise in awe. The majority of the world seems to have no conception of what lies here to be explored. How many of your friends say "this year we're going to Syria"?
Ah, you say, but what are they like when it comes to business? In my experience of bringing a theatre production to Damascus? Not just each and every letter of the contract adhered to - but a man and his team who went out of their way to be gracious and generous.
Just the drive to Aleppo proved to be one of the most exciting, most exhilarating days of my life. Just one day in Aleppo the most envigorating, enlightening experience. A city more alive than any I have ever experienced.
And half an hour in the non-tourist town of Saqrib the most intensely social experiece of my life.
This is a poor country with a huge heart. I cannot believe how the West has portrayed its people. How we have expropriated so many of their discoveries and inventions. How circulation, opthalmology, astronomy etc were discovered and practised centuries before the West caught up. Is this taught in Western history? Does anyone know the name of the man who discovered the world was round 500 years before Galileo made his discoveries? Or his contemporary who worked out the cicumferance of the planet to within 124 miles?
And why, why has this land now fallen into such a poor and powerless state? I asked many I met and all shook their heads in despair. No-one had answers. But choosing the wrong side in WW1 was surely a catastophe? And countries created by Britain and France without regard to greater Arabia? Old, uninspired, despotic rulers? Support for Hamas and Hezbollah? Fear and suspicion of neighbours?
I meet the director of a movie being shot at Krac de Chevalier. He welcomes me with open arms. He tells me everyone has two homes. The place where they are born - and Syria.
It is difficult to describe how impossible this would have been for me to say two weeks ago, but I love Syria. Its cities, its breath-taking countryside, its ubiquitus mountains, its historic sites, its uniquely friendly people.
I feel ignorant and humbled to have made this discovery so late in my life. Thank you, Syria, for changing my perception of the world.
Thank you for one of the greatest weeks of my life.
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