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Patience, persistence pay off with visit to Syria

Image: Syria
People chat and relax in the courtyard of Damascus' Umayyad Mosque, one of the most important archeological and religious sites in Syria and the entire region.Holly M. Martins
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Inshallah, which means “if Allah wills it” in Arabic, is a useful expression in an uncertain world.  I’ve employed it in versions of the following:

“I’ll finish this article by this afternoon, inshallah.”

“My flight leaves, inshallah, tomorrow at 6:45 a.m.”

“Inshallah, we’ll be together again soon.”

And most recently:

“I’m going to Syria on vacation, inshallah.”

For years I’ve wanted to visit Syria and its capital, Damascus, which is thought to be the world’s oldest, continuously occupied city.

I’d heard about Damascus souks — or markets — where buyers and sellers bustle beneath bullet-hole speckled roofs, the remnants of a nationalist rebellion about 80 years ago. Visitors rave about the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most important religious sites in Islam. Then there’s the cuisine, considered by many to be the best in the region.

Apparently, though, Syria didn’t want me. Not surprisingly, the government is wary of American-passport-wielding journalists. The country is officially at war with Israel, which has held Syria’s Golan Heights since the 1967 Six Day War. Alleged support for militant group Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon has further soured relations with the West.

So the people in charge probably don’t see me as friendly. Damascus, however, has its share of noisy American college students, many there with the help of the U.S. government, so Syria clearly welcomes some Americans.

‘Syria is not North Korea’
I told an embassy official here in London that I wanted to visit his country purely for pleasure. He assured me that any snags processing the application would be due entirely to bureaucracy. “Syria is not North Korea,” he said.

I didn’t get the visa in London. Still hoping for the best, I flew to Jordan — Syria’s neighbor — and met a friend who was traveling in the region. We decided to wait there to see if visas came through. It was the most expensive wait I’d endured. Prices at Jordan’s largely mediocre restaurants and hotels were ludicrous.

More than a week later and nearly out of hope, word came from a friend of a friend that I should travel to the border at Jaber, where visas would be waiting. In Syria, like so many parts of the world, knowing someone who knows someone helps enormously. But at the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, a ready smile is also useful. I smiled a lot on the border with Syria.

The journey began at the hot and dusty Abdalli bus station in Jordan’s capital, Amman, haggling for a taxi to Damascus. Eventually we agreed to pay 50 Jordanian dinar ($70) for a trip that should take just over two hours before factoring in the actual crossing.

We passed signs to Iraq while traveling through the parched landscape, a reminder of how delicate this neighborhood is. Our driver stopped at a small building on the side of the road for an unscheduled — for his passengers at least — coffee break.

We eventually arrived at the border and waited for hours in crowded and dusty rooms. I wasn’t convinced they would admit us, but I relaxed when a Syrian border official looked at me and held up his right hand while drawing together his fingertips, a gesture that means “just a little while.”

Immediately across the border I noticed how green and ordered the countryside was.  Olive groves stretched out on either side of the road and tractors dotted the fields. 

Damascus, finally!
We arrived on the outskirts of Damascus in about an hour. Initially, Syria’s capital simply reminded me of other sprawling cities in developing countries:  Low-rise buildings dominated the landscape, dilapidated cars zipped around and market stalls lined the streets.

We caught a second car on the side of a wide road and set out toward the ancient center of Damascus, known as the Old City. After several cell phone calls to the hotel — beware of roaming charges! — we again stopped on a busy intersection, this time next to a stall laden with melons.

A golf cart driven by a man in a black suit eventually appeared — our ride to the hotel. This mode of transport delighted me and I swayed happily as we rounded sharp corners. My companion, however, was miffed — this did not fit the image of intrepid, hard-man traveler.

The cart burrowed through narrowing stone-paved lanes into the Old City’s traditional Jewish quarter. Late-afternoon sky shone between the tops of buildings leaning in over us. As my guidebook told me, the Old City is essentially a medieval town. In other words, it can feel pretty disorganized, what with its crooked lanes and dead-end streets.

All of a sudden we stopped at an anonymous-looking doorway in an alleyway’s wall. Inside lay the Talisman, a traditional Damascene mansion transformed into a hotel. Seventeen rooms sat around a courtyard with a small swimming pool. The walls were deep red, and carvings and mosaics dotted the many stone arches.

As we settled in for the evening, the call to prayer resounded around us, haunting and melancholy. Gradually it was joined by similar voices from around the city. In the room, chandeliers hung heavy with colored glass and maroon-infused carpets lay on the floors.

The next morning we ate breakfast in the courtyard. After a meal of flat bread, honey, salty cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, hummus, olives and an omelet, we decided to go back to the room for a nap.

I haven’t stayed in too many boutique hotels, but this fit the description perfectly.  Even my hardened companion melted after two nights there and admitted that another visit would be nice.

To eat again
Someone advised me to not pay too much attention to maps while in Damascus, so on our first evening we decided to discover a restaurant, preferably one that served wine.

We picked our way through the narrow streets, avoiding young boys careening along on bicycles. Surprises greeted us throughout. A Roman arch stood around one corner, an ancient covered souk around another. We passed a tiny two-seater barbershop where a Koran shared a shelf with a jar of Gentle Facial Scrub.

Cats gazed at us throughout our walk. Some believe that jinns — mischievous or evil spirits — take the form of cats, so Damascus felt a bit haunted at times.

Locals were polite and friendly, but other Westerners tended to look away when we passed. This is the sort of place where tourists appear unwilling to speak to other foreigners, perhaps unwilling to admit that they don’t have the city to themselves.

Soon enough we found a place to eat. I later found out that Naranj, full of sleek, well-heeled Syrians, has the reputation as the best restaurant in the city, deservedly in my opinion. The fish was served on a bed of rice of rice flavored with a hint of what I think was saffron. A mild white fish, in a light sauce of chili, onion and cashews, lay on top. But dessert — a platter of 15 or so different dishes, all delicately flavored and not laden with honey and rosewater — trumped.

The next night we ventured out of the Old City to go to Shameat, where we sat at small tables and feasted on piles of fresh vegetables, meat, chicken rice and bread. Shameat, frequented by “regular” Syrians, does not serve alcohol.

Travel happens
I’m not a turbo-charged tourist, dashing around with a checklist of must-do activities. I prefer to let a place happen to me. Having said that, one thing a visitor must do in Damascus is visit the Ummayyad Mosque.

People of many faiths have worshiped in this spot since around the ninth century B.C. The complex in the northwest of the Old City has been an exclusively Islamic site for more than 1,000 years — around the time Damascus became center of the Muslim world.

For modesty’s sake, most foreigners and a few locals have to rent huge beige cloaks before entering. Visitors take off their shoes at the Bab al-Barid, or Western Gate, and most carry them throughout the visit. I made the mistake of letting a friendly local commandeer mine and check them into a shoe repository. I tried to ignore him politely as he pointed out different aspects of the buildings, which is divided roughly between a prayer hall and courtyard. Finally, I told him flat out to leave me and my companion alone. He stared at me with moist eyes before wandering off, doubtless in search of another tourist to ensnare.

Having gotten rid of my companion, I ventured into the prayer hall, where kneeling worshippers were scattered on vast red carpets. A small crowd sat around a man as he stood chanting in the center of the room. Around him, men and women exclaimed and struck their heads with their palms.

In the large courtyard, I gazed at the shimmering gold and green mosaics, apparently depicting ancient Damascus’ gardens, villas and fountains. But watching families enjoy a day out in the huge courtyard was the most fun. Young men leaned against pillars, women chatted and children chased each other across the limestone floor. It felt a little bit like a huge picnic, except without the sandwiches and Coke.

We eventually drifted out of the mosque and into a huge covered souk that lay just beyond the gate. The transition from awesome place of worship to bustling place of commerce jarred.

Though we had just scratched the surface, it was already time to leave Damascus.

We have vowed, though, to return to Syria and spend time outside the Old City and in the rest of the country.