Violent place we see on the news is not the Syria a visitor learns to love
By Kristi Rendahl
Kristi Rendahl is a Minnesota-based writer and blogger.
The whole world knows about Syria on the brink of civil war. What I know, by contrast, is Syrian hospitality. I took a side trip to Syria a few years ago. It was a short distance from Armenia, where I was visiting friends.
When I arrived by train in Damascus, the train director took me into the station's office. There, staff members engaged in a lengthy discussion, which I assumed was about my fate. I speak only pleasantries in Arabic; all I could do was show them the name of my hotel and wait patiently while they decided what to do with me.
Fifteen minutes later, I was escorted to a taxi whose driver took me to my hotel. In a nearby shop, I heard two Armenian words from the owner. This didn't surprise me, because Armenians are a significant Christian minority in Syria. When I told the shop owner that I had been given the name of an Armenian family to contact in Damascus, he grabbed the phone. Within minutes, he had arranged for the family to meet me in his shop the following morning.
Sure enough, the next morning they appeared and insisted that I would be staying with them that night. Then the entire family drove me around the countryside, visiting churches built during the times when national security mandated smaller doorways so invaders couldn't enter on horseback. I slept in the daughters' room that night while one of them burned me a CD of Arabic music. The next morning, the father took me to the train station and asked one of the train workers to watch out for me.
In the northern city of Aleppo, the friend of a friend took me to his church, where I'd been offered a guest room for my last night in the country. We left my bag in the room and went to what he described as one of the most Western restaurants in the city. "Our cheeseburgers are better than what you'll get in America," he said with conviction, though he'd never visited the United States.
We met up with two of his friends. I don't remember a thing about what we ate or discussed except that the girl kept insisting that I stay with her family that night. I declined politely about six times, saying that the church's guest room would be just fine, that it was late and I simply couldn't impose.
The seventh time, I paused a second too long. "It'll be better for you, you'll have fun," they said. The girl lived with her parents and brother, and we arrived at their home around midnight, something I would never do in the United States. When we entered, her parents were still awake and watching the news. They welcomed me warmly with food and tea.
The daughter came home from work early the next day so she and her brother could show me the town. We walked and walked. She translated for me in the market. I was interested in the beautiful silk scarves and wanted to buy three of the higher-end (i.e., $5) ones. "They must be for very special friends," she said when I explained they were gifts. I was embarrassed. She told me that she makes $100 a month. I didn't buy anything else.
That night, her mother made a feast. Later, the son, a hair stylist by profession, worked on my hair. Then they took me to the airport around midnight.
Since I'd raised a certain level of suspicion by traveling alone, the family figured that the officials would be happy to see me leave. While that was an inhospitable thought, I had seen what real Syrian hospitality is. And I had the hair to prove it.
My visit to Syria was filled with joy. The thing about Syrians — along with the Lebanese and Persians and Turks and other peoples in that part of the world — is that they hold their guests above everything else. You wouldn't know that if you learned about them only from the news, but it's true.