First impressions

At the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus with a teacher from the University (left, in robes) and Iraqi women visiting from Baghdad.

Here's what I wrote shortly after arriving in Damascus in July of 2004. The audience was my hometown local newspaper, but for one reason or another, I ended up never submitting it for publication.

When my husband and I decided to move to Damascus, Syria, the reactions we received from friends and family were almost exclusively expressions of concern for our safety in what they insisted was an extremist, America-hating, terrorist-infested country. Granted, I had a few concerns of my own, but I was determined to give this yet-unseen country and its people the benefit of the doubt.

We flew out of PDX early on the morning of July 6th. Just two nights before, we were lounging with friends and family on the greenbelt of the Oak Hills neighborhood in Beaverton, enjoying the 4th of July fireworks display. The contrast between that mild, green, sunny day in Oregon and the drab, oppressive, dusty heat I found myself in just days later can hardly be described. I looked around Damascus and saw only unfamiliar people, dirty streets, and unfinished buildings. Where was I, and what had I done?

Gradually, however, I began noticing the elegant mosques that dotted the city. I saw beautiful women, both Muslim and Christian, with and without headscarves, dressed in all varieties of styles and colors. I grew used to the mournful, lilting tone of the call to prayer, and even learned to sleep through it at 4.30 in the morning. Most importantly, I realized that everyone who told me that Syria was a country full of extremists who danced in the streets on September 11th was, quite simply, wrong.

As a blonde-haired, blue-eyed foreigner walking through the winding, narrow streets of Old Damascus, I am constantly being welcomed to the country, either by a pleasantly accented “Welcome!” or “Welcome to Syria!”, or just the Arabic “Ahala wi Sahala!” Upon engaging in conversation, Syrians are surprised to find out that I’m from America, and living here. “Our governments are not friends,” they say wearily, but are quick to add that they love the American people. Next, they are endearingly eager to find out if I like Syria. An affirmative response usually earns another enthusiastic ahala wi sahala or two.

Damascus is absolutely crazy, with cars, minivans, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and horse-drawn fruit carts all trying to navigate the same roads, which are often not divided into separate lanes. Battered old minivans (called servees in Arabic) go all over the city and will give you a ride for 10 cents. The city gets crazier every day, but I think I’m growing crazier right along with it. The things I used to marvel at last week I now find myself doing—like navigating a 7-way, 4-lane traffic circle at night, on foot, weaving in and out between cars that may or may not stop for me.

My husband and I live not in an isolated diplomatic compound, but in a normal apartment in a predominantly Muslim part of the city. In the evenings, the sidewalks (and streets) are jammed with people – families, young children running around alone or on bikes, and groups of young men and young women. Shopping for everyday goods is not a daytime chore left to one member of the family, but a time in the evening for the whole family to go out together. Syrian society is largely family-oriented, and trusting and mindful of others, even foreigners. If there are no more seats on the servees, the driver will flag down another one for me. If the driver doesn’t hear me call out my stop, the other passengers pass on the message. If I’m short on money for a purchase, storekeepers often let me go with a smile and a promise to bring the rest of the money by another day.

I found a job teaching English courses at an organization called Amideast. My students are Syrian teenagers. For some of them, I’m the only American they’ve ever met. They ask what Americans think of Syria and its people and I can only say that we are often uninformed – or worse, misinformed. They speak heatedly about their frustration with their image in the western world. One female student pleaded with me to tell people what Syria was really like. “Tell them we’re not terrorists,” she said, “tell them we were sad on September 11th, too.”

So now I’ve told you. The warm, loving people of Syria have taken me into their homes and hearts to show me that there is often a difference between mainstream media representations and the truth, a difference between the perceptions of a faraway land and reality in the country itself. I’ve learned that there is a difference between a wholesome religion with millions of members worldwide and those few who would manipulate its teachings. And there is certainly more to a country, be it Syria or America, than politics, sanctions, and misunderstanding. There are people who are willing to put aside differences between governments and embrace a fellow human being.
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