Syria In My Heart
By Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross

The horrifying massacres in Syria seem very personal to Judith Fein as she reflects on her trip to that country three years ago, and wonders about the well-being of the people she met there...

How is one supposed to "be careful? I wondered. Every friend I informed that I was going to Syria had the same response: a frown, followed by the words, "Be careful." Careful of what?

aleppo souk

"You've got two strikes against you," an artist buddy told me. "You're American and you're Jewish." I thanked them all for their concerns and fears on my behalf, hoped the Syrians on the street would not hold me accountable for the country or religion I was born to, and off I went.

This was 2009, three years before the Arab Spring elsewhere led to an all-out war here. As I walked through the covered souks and streets of old Damascus, past the Umayyid mosque, which houses the tomb of military genius Saladin and, purportedly, the head of John the Baptist, locals called out to me, asking me where I was from. "The United States," I answered.

"Ahlan wasahlan, welcome, welcome!" they called back. Some of them were women in headscarves, others were teenagers, munching on schwarma, a few were older men, and one was a sheikh, elegantly attired in a white turban and a black robe ornamented with silver thread.

"Are you Sunni or Shia?" I asked him politely.

"Neither, I am just Muslim. And I have a message for you. The American people are very nice, but your government has a devilish foreign policy. It's all about oil and war and not about love. Love and war do not go together."

History and Hospitality
The first Syrian I had an actual conversation with was a guide at the National Museum. Writing began in Syria, and I was standing in the Ugaritic rooms, gawking at the first complete alphabet in the world, going from left to right, incised into a clay tablet. He mentioned that the museum housed an entire synagogue from the 3rd century BC, and the walls were covered with Biblical frescos, even though Judaism proscribed figurative art. Hearing the word "Judaism," yet trying to be careful, I asked him how he felt about Jews and Judaism. He looked around, to make sure no one else was within earshot, and answered.

"Imagine someone steals twenty dollars from your pocket," he began. "Then, years later, they offer to give you back three dollars. How would you feel? This is our situation with Israel. We want the Golan Heights returned to us, and then there can be peace and we can accept Israel as our neighbor. At first the issue was the elimination of Israel, but now it's about land. We want our land back. Everyone is tired of war, tired of all the money from our budget that goes to defense."

ain dara

In a Damascus restaurant, the owner gave me an oval piece of black meteorite with one of Allah's names inscribed on it. "It's for safety and protection during voyages, " he explained.

Is it possible that I was in Syria, runner-up for membership in Bush's infamous Axis of Evil and probably near the bottom of most Americans' lists of desirable destinations?

Syria is a crossroads country, traversed, conquered and settled over millennia by Neolithic farmers and a wave of kingdoms and empires like the Hittites, Mari, Canaanites, Amorites, Assyrians, and Phoenicians. It was an important Roman and Byzantine province and, later, was crisscrossed by caravans on the Silk Route from China. There were incursions by the troops of Mohammed, strongholds built by European Crusaders, occupation by Ottomans, British and French, and independence was finally declared in 1946.

Seasoned by trade, politics, domination, treaties and accommodation to the outside world, Syrians are interested in foreigners, curious about other nations, and hospitable to visitors. Although the tourism infrastructure is acceptable but underdeveloped outside of Damascus, Syria has a quantity and quality of ancient sites that surprise the most sophisticated travelers, who are also taken by the sophistication of many Syrians, especially those in urban centers.

Umayyid mosque

About eight kilometers from central Damascus is Zeynep mosque, the burial place of Mohammed's granddaughter and a pilgrimage site for Shia Muslims. The walls of the women's side are covered with mirrored mosaics; the effect is like walking among diamonds. The devout cry, pray, and some women attach padlocks to the grillwork in front of the tomb. One woman explained that she is "locked" into a problem in her life, and hopes Zeynep will open the lock so she can be free. Then she asked if I were locked into any problems and I wanted Zeynep to help. I demurred, but maybe I should have said yes.

In Shahba, a Druz community about 100 kilometers south of Damascus, a friendly local shop owner described their belief in reincarnation. He explained that about three or four years after someone suffers a violent death, a young child goes into the home of the deceased and knows all the rooms and where things are hidden. Shahba was a small village built between 244 and 249 A.D. by native son Philip the Arab, when he was a Roman emperor. The intimate Roman theatre is beautifully preserved, and the walls and vaulted doorways of the Roman bath are still standing. "Do people believe in reincarnation where you come from? " he asked me. I replied that some did, some didn't, and, personally, I once had an experience with a past life regression. "I was an Arab woman in that life," I told him, as he grinned.

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