Below is an excerpt from my book, Beach Buggy Safari. It was my first visit to Syria. The brief length of the chapter doesn't do my time there justice. I very much enjoyed my time in Syria, and thought the world of the Syrian people. It wasn't uncommon for another traveller to share stories of the kindness of the Syrians - how they would give them the shirts of their backs, feed them, invite them, and treat them as honoured guests - and these were complete strangers. This is only one of the factors that influences my desire to welcome Syrian refugees into Canada. I believe it takes a lot of fear, desperation, and bravery to abandon ones home and livelihood. I can only imagine what the feeling would be like to have lost everything. My loved ones, my belongings, my savings, my home, my community.
It's sad to read the unwelcoming posts the internet, telling them to go back where they came from. Syrian refugees are terrified victims who have risked their lives, travelling by boat and truck and whatever to escape unspeakable terror.
I don't think people get that. I also honestly believe that refugees don't come to Canada as terrorists anymore than a person is born a terrorist. Our actions, as Canadians - the darkness of our xenophobia versus the light of our hospitality, will influence these people futures. How dark, or bright, these people's futures are depend as much on us as it does on them.
Excerpt from Syria
After the border post, my first vision in Syria was a massive welcoming billboard. On it, Syria’s dictator Bashar al Assad was dressed in military garb. He frowned down at newcomers with his thin moustache and angular nose. I then drove through the flat plains northwards before I arrived in Damascus.
Damascus, the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world, was confusing. It was like trying to navigate through spaghetti. There might have been one non-winding street in the city. Its uniqueness in the hairball formation of roads dates back to biblical times where it was known as, The Street called Straight. I quickly became so disoriented I didn’t know which direction I was travelling in.
I stopped where a group of teenagers had congregated outside of a billiards café and asked for directions to my hotel.
“I can show you the way,” one of them offered. “No, let me,” said his friend. The two of them climbed in, one on top of the other into the cramped passenger seat, and before long I was parked near my hotel, thanking them, and unloading my bags. They said no problem, and refused any compensation. "Our duty," they said.
Damascus’s history is about as confusing as its winding streets. It had been built by empire after empire which had conquered the region, as though the central point in a multi-sided empirical tug of war.
A remnant of the Roman and Turkish invasions is the numerous bath houses, known locally as Hammams. These ancient buildings, some more than a millennium old, could be found hidden in the cobbled alleyways that twisted through medieval two-and-three-storey neighbourhoods.
Throughout the Arab world, public bath houses play an important role in society. It’s where mothers go in search of potential daughters-in-law. A would-be-fiancée proves her domestic skills by offering to wash the older women. If she washed incompetently, not scrubbing enough, or going too slowly, it was a sign she wouldn’t be a good housewife.
The Hammam down the street from my basic hotel had a rounded doorway with the date 958 written on a plaque outside. I entered into its Persian-carpeted lounge. Elaborate, plush cushions and couches lined the walls. Stacks of towels were heaped behind the walnut service counter.
I paid for the full package, unsure of just what that entailed, and then stripped down. With one of my two towels around my waist, I pushed through a swinging door where a wave of cool, damp air greeted me. The smooth, grey stone walls had fist-sized holes like something out of the Flintstones. Other patrons sat on the floor, dumping jugs of water over their heads and lathering with their bars of soap. I copied them.
A wiry old man with strands of grey hair sticking out his ears opened a door and waved me into a separate room. I entered to see a high concrete table in the centre and two big bottles of green liquid soap on a chair.
This was my first such experience; being naked with another man that had the intention of touching me, and it was awkward. I lay face down on the table. The old man poured water and soap onto my back. Using course gloves, he scrubbed back and forth, everywhere, until my body was covered in lathering suds and my skin tingled. He then rinsed everything off with more buckets of warm water. The suds slid off the table and snaked down the drain. He repeated the same procedure two more time and then pointed toward the steam room. I took my towels, put my flip-flops back on and entered.
A middle-aged man with a dark moustache was perched high on a raised bench. He broke into a smile. “Welcome to Syria.”
His intense stare made me feel uneasy, as though a guy in the next urinal was trying to take a peek.
“Where are you from,” he asked, stretching his hand out in greeting. I hesitated before meeting it. “Canada.”
“I have a huge house here in Damascus,” he said, still holding the grip even though I tried to pull away.
“That’s nice.” I yanked my hand back and sat down opposite him.
“I prefer men,” he said.
“I prefer women.”
He continued as though I might change my mind. “Well, Westerners having open minds, right? You can come over to my place for dinner if you want?”
My only complaint about Damascus so far, aside from the overly forward homosexual in the Turkish bath, was the government. It felt as though a dark shadow lingered over the city. There was a sense that someone was constantly watching and listening, limiting where I could go and even what I could say. “Don’t talk about you know where,” other travellers warned me, referring to Israel.
The president’s picture was on the currency. His sinister face hung in every shop, and stared down from billboards. Some locals even had silhouette-like stickers on their car windows which showed the president wearing pimp-like sunglasses. Images of leaders hadn’t bothered me in other countries. Perhaps it was because they tried to appear regal and important. This president appeared menacing, like a coward empowered by the gun in his hand. With this in mind, I decided to move on to Lebanon.
Not far outside Damascus, cedar-forested mountains dominated the Lebanese landscape ahead. In the Syrian immigration office, I made sure to ask about the double-entry visa. “I don’t want to pay another seventy dollars. Can you make sure this is a double-entry visa?”
“Yes, yes, no problem.” said the uniformed official. “That’s fine. You don’t need another visa to get back into Syria.”
Other versions of this chapter talked about the amazing food I had in Damascus. Something that was very unexpected coming from Egypt and Jordan. Their international cuisine was a reflection of the numerous cultures that had invaded, occupied, or influenced the city over the millennia.
The season approaches where the nativity scene is displayed in churches across North America. In case you forgot, it is about a Middle Eastern family desperate for shelter.