Watching Syria’s War With Tears In My Eyes

Somehow I question the sincerity of the headline on this billboard, I took this photo in the summer of 2008.

What’s happening to Syria? To the people of Syria.

My friends in Syria. I wonder. And I cry.

Why? Because Syria surprised me. Surprised me with thrilling and unexpected  joy—and filled me with wonder and curiosity.

That was then.

Though it seems like yesterday, it was about 4 years ago when I changed my plans, my route and my mind and ventured into Syria. What I thought would be a few day journey through the tiny and controversial country, turned into weeks of exploring back roads, medieval towns, historic mosques and of meeting people who went out of their way to introduce me to their country and whose hospitality, though not unusual to a world traveler, warmed my heart and opened my mind to, what I believed at the time, a world of Syrian possibilities. And opportunity.

 

 

My expectations back in 2008 were, at first, tempered, given the challenge and patience testing circumstances I endured at the border. I had no idea what to expect from or in Syria. It took me more than 24 hours of negotiating, commitment, confidence and a helluva lot of persistence at the border between Syria and Jordan, and though the rules were clear, they didn’t seem like they’d yield to my tenacity and break them, somehow I convinced Syrian immigration and customs to let me and my motorcycle into Syria.

Yet before I could escape the dusty outpost where truck drivers argue, families gather and women, hiding behind burkas take more than a step away from me when I walk by, curiosity aroused, the chief of the border post invited me to enjoy tea and shared with me, on a map he scribbled with a stick into the earth between his feet, the sites I should not miss while visiting Syria.

I remember that chief inspector, with his silver hair, rough features yet how his kind eyes made me feel welcome and that all the effort at the border was worth it.

And I wonder. I remember the gas station owner who wouldn’t let me pay for my gas and insisted I have tea and lunch inside the gas station. The man selling tamarind juice on the square in the new city in Aleppo. “You try, you try,” he said over and over again. When my face puckered from the bitter taste, he offered me a sweeter and more approachable alternative. And I wonder. I remember the young boy who latched onto me as I explored the citadel in the old city and wandered through the maze of colorful and aromatic souks, of Aleppo. And I wonder.

I wonder what is happening to a country that I often refer to as one of my favorite of the more than 50 countries I’ve visited over the years. Just a few short years ago, Syria sucked me in, seduced, satisfied and teased me like playful lover — like no other. Yet I wonder. What’s happened to Syria, my Syria; the Syria I remember, the friends.

In Aleppo at the modest restaurant where the staff sent me home with a bottle of Syrian wine and where I was asked to play a lute-like stringed instrument, the one that when I tried to make music just croaked, and that I’m sure grated on the ears and nerves of the other guests dining in the room. Yet they indulged me. And so my love affair with Syria, fresh at this time, barely a week, blossomed and was public.

Smitten and excited by the beauty and history of Aleppo, I opted out of travel to the historic dead cities of the east, only so I could be with the living, and the energy of the people of Aleppo—the people who, in so many ways, trusted me with the key to their city and offered sights, sounds and flavors. Though perhaps I didn’t know it at the time, they did this willingly and with intent, I can only guess, to seduce me further.

I wonder. What’s happened to Syria. My Syria. The Syria I remember.

Watching the reports from man-in-the-street video in Damascus and elsewhere, the horrific images of the effects of recent chemical weapon attacks, and the posturing of world powers on the global stage fills me we anger and despair.  The all-to-real destruction and humanitarian abuse of the war in Syria, thanks to modern technology and social media, leaves nothing for the imagination. In nearly real time we are at once shocked by what we see, yet we are numbed by the distance of our eyes to screens and the distance of the screens to the actual location where these atrocities are real. There’s no way for us to completely understand not only the political posturing, but the suffering and the loss.

Most journalists have abandoned the city, save those that are provided a safe haven and used as political pawns such as Charlie Rose’s recent chat with Al-Assad. Others are left to report from afar, with ears to the doors of Syria at the borders of Lebanon and Turkey.

For better or worse, people on both sides of the conflict, armed with video-capable cell phones capture the madness like no other conflict we’ve ever seen before. These are not the eyes or camera of journalists. So it’s difficult to truly know or understand exactly what we’re watching. But that doesn’t matter. Because what we’re seeing is brutal—regardless of who is to blame.

Today, we have word that Russia, with its questionable motives, has negotiated with Al-Assad a handover of chemical weapons. Time will tell if this is real and verifiable. But the other atrocities of the conflict will go on. Why must we settle for chemical weapons? It’s likely that the US, and its allies will continue its pressure, and Russia will continue its efforts and the next act will come to the stage. The blood, no doubt, will continue to spill and the super powers and the UN will advance its own agendas while throwing caustic rhetoric at Al-Assad and each other. They will continue to ignore the burning buildings and bodies and, as such, the question fogging my mind will remain unanswered.

What’s happening to Syria. My Syria, the Syria I remember. What happened to you, Syria? My Syria.

Hmmm. I also remember visiting Rwanda and Sudan before arriving in Syria.

What’s happening?

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