This is the story of a picture. Here is the picture:
And here is the story...
In July 2004, Jeremy and I had just moved to Syria for him to study Arabic at the University of Damascus on a joint Fulbright/AFIC scholarship. My first impressions of Damascus could fill many blog posts, but suffice it to say that I found the city to be dusty, noisy, hectic, and incredibly foreign. It was also enchanting, beautiful, and rich in historical treasures - to this day, Damascus remains one of my most favorite cities in the world.
The staff at the University of Damascus took Jeremy and his three classmates under their wing and in our first few weeks there, they took us on several field trips around town and around the country. One of our very first ones was to the Omayyad Mosque in the Old City of Damascus.
Since the Omayyad Mosque is still a functioning mosque, all visitors were required to dress modestly. For the women, this meant putting on special clothes in the Putting On Special Clothes Room.
I confess I felt a little bit like some kind of a Hobbit.
As I remember it, while we were in the courtyard of the mosque, a group of women and children a few yards away kept eyeing us intently. We were all used to being stared at because we were foreigners, but these people looked like they might actually get up the courage to come approach us. That was something that didn't always happen.
I should preface what happened next by noting that at that time, the United States was in the early, heady days of their military operations in Iraq. It's easy now to look back and see how things went wrong and how many terrible mistakes were made. But the complete and total disillusionment with the operation that is so prevalent now was still fairly latent in the summer of 2004.
Anyway, as we made our way out of the mosque, one lady from the group of people who had been watching us approached us and asked if we were American. Why yes, we were, we answered. She said that they were visiting Damascus from Iraq, then insisted on taking a photo with Hannah (one of Jeremy's classmates), Khaloud (Jeremy's teacher, on the left in the Hobbit robe), and me. She literally, physically grabbed me, as you can see in the photo, gathered together the rest of her group, and we had our picture taken together as she told us how much she loved us as Americans.
That was one of my first formative experiences in the Middle East. It was integral to my eventual realization that people are not always politics, and that personal encounters with other cultures are absolutely vital to creating understanding between countries.
As far as I know, we never saw those Iraqi women again, though we saw and met many other Iraqis during our stay in Damascus and in subsequent years in Amman. Not all of them proclaimed their love for America or even Americans. But these women did, they were the first, and I'll never forget them.