Politics vs. people on the street
Soon after the Syrian government sagely protested Bush's 2002 Iraq war, only humanitarian food and medicine survived the resulting U.S. sanctions. They blocked trade, supported isolation, and prevented American carriers from flying here. Are these sanctions behind my ATM card being eaten? As in Cuba, another country suffering a now misguided U.S. embargo, Syrians extend warm hands to all foreigners anyway. Their intelligence allows them to separate people and politics. On several occasions while mingling on sidewalks, shopkeepers crossed streets carrying plastic chairs and set them out for our comfort.
How does a country like Syria maintain good relations with both Iran and the West? Non–political solutions will be stalled until travelers meet. My visit synced with a long overdue, groundbreaking goodwill visit from Saudi King Abdullah. PR firm Ogilvy & Mather just opened an office here, another harbinger of a cooperation wave.
Approximately 50,000 Americans visit Syria each year, and that number is increasing. Lebanese–born Wafa Kaanan, publisher of ALO Magazine, the largest U.S–based monthly for Arabs and Americans, insists that "humanity has no nationality." Kaanan, a Los Angeles resident, also runs the ALO Cultural Foundation, which supports orphanages and major medical needs for poor children throughout the Middle East. Kaanan brings severely disabled Middle Eastern children to California, raises the money for their costly surgeries, and returns them home to prosper.
Damascus, a cosmopolitan hub, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its quaintcient city squares and narrow alleys defy other textbook World Heritage City examples of tourism run amok. Bargain restaurants serving gourmet meals inside Bible–aged stone buildings line every street. Freestyle, jeans and t–shirt clad women outnumber those cloaked in traditional hijabs.
As a New Yorker with an allergy to horn–honking, I believe Syria's aggressive, pass–everyone–despite–the–risks cabbies are worthy of having a shoe thrown at them. Notorious drivers' aside, Islam ranks booze on par with Bush's outgoing approval rating, so drunkenness is rare. I saw one street fight in Damascus, and with no women in sight to be fighting over, I wondered, "What's the fuss fellas?" When I wandered into a hardware store to discuss China's tool manufacturing takeover, the owner kindly put me on the phone with a university professor to evolve the conversation.
Obesity is rare here, probably because every meal opens with a fresh, organic jumble of hummus, tabouille, and babaganoosh. Cheese fries and fried chicken wings haven't landed on menus yet. I've endured every variety of travelers' diarrhea, a few cases manifolding into simultaneous digestive inlet and outlet explosions—with a blame range from a Mumbai curry to a Long Island McDonald's—but this was the first time my digestive track was taken down in an Arab country. One never knows: the origin of the shits can be as simple as snorting in a bit of water while showering. But a few other travelers I met were also walloped by something they ingested. So an upset stomach seems to be the primary real danger here.
U.S. Department of State, don't get me wrong, I respect America's role in this world and believe that patriotism is defined by improving your country. That's why I encourage insulated Americans to reach beyond their borders to grasp the idea that so–called unstable regions have happy citizens too, despite being poor. (P.S., Abraham Lincoln was poor). My road to Damascus aims to increase my neighbors' chance of visiting this magnetic haven of ancient human monuments, and contemporary human grace. Cross Syria, the heart of the Silk Road and a cradle of Christianity, off the blacklist.
One exposure to Syria's hospitality swarm will create a seismic shift in perceptions about this corner of the 'axis of evil'. Aleppo's imposing citadel is adorned with stone relief snake sculptures. While Christianity portrays snakes as devils, that chapter of Islam celebrated their cunning genius. It's all about perception.
If you go: Syria is currently a war zone, unlike when this story was published in January 2010. When the country is eventually safe for tourists again, try www.syriatourism.org. Emirates Airlines flies to Damascus via Dubai – www.emirates.com. The rise of Emirates helped inspire Dubai, a bustling modern city snatched from the desert. Their sheik business lounge at Dubai airport seems to span 10 acres.
Bruce Northam is the author of Globetrotter Dogma. His new show, American Detour, is on www.americandetour.com.
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