Friday, November 13, 2015

Syria, I love you

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, 2009

My name is Katherine Blouin and I am an Associate Professor in Roman History at UTSC (Historical and Cultural Studies) and UofT (Classics).

Syria holds a very special place in my heart. It is the first country I ever visited in the Middle East. It was 1999. I was 21 years old. To this day, I vividly remember how hospitable and kind the people I met there were. I have so far never experienced something similar anywhere else in the world.
It started from the moment I was on my way to Damascus. While on transit in Vienna, my travelling companion and I noticed an old man and his son who, like us, had flown from Montréal. They seemed lost. We offered our help, and it turned out that they were Syrians and that, like us, they were on their way to Damascus. We escorted them to our departure gate and didn't see them during the flight. We landed in Damascus in the middle of the night. After we picked up our luggage, we had to line up in a dark corridor in order to have them checked by (slightly scary) customs officers. This is where we bumped into the old man and his son again. When he saw us, the old man came to us and said: "You helped us when we were in your part of the world. Now that you are here, let us help you."

 Vineyard, on the road to southern Syria, 2009

They then accompanied us through the security check and offered to share a taxi and to escort us to our budget hotel, which was located downtown. We accepted. On our way, we learned that one of the old man's sons lived in Montréal with his wife and kids and that he and his oldest son had gone there to visit. They were actually Syrians living in Al-Hasakah, a city located close to the Iraqi border, and so had a long way to go by bus from Damascus before getting home. Once we got to the hotel address, we realized that it did not exist anymore. It must have been 4am by that time. My companion and I were exhausted and didn't know what to do. "Why don't you come to Aleppo with us?", the old man said. "We're going there by bus on our way to Al-Hasakah. I have another son who lives there so he could help you find a hotel and show you around". After mulling over this proposal for a few minutes, we decided that, given the circumstances, it was our best option. So we boarded a full bus to Aleppo with our new acquaintances, and arrived there in the early afternoon. 

The old man's youngest son was waiting for us at the bus station. After seeing his father and brother off, he hosted us at his place for a few hours, the time for us to take a quick nap. Then, he helped us find a hotel ("I would have gladly hosted you", he said, "but people might think you are American spies and denounce me, so it's best if you stay at a hotel"). A few hours later, he picked us up for an evening in town. He first brought us to the emblematic Hotel Baron, where we had an outdoor drink with a friend of his. We then went for a (wonderful!) meal in the old city. Once we got to the place, it so happened that a group of friends of his were having dinner. We joined them, and ended spending the whole evening and night eating, drinking, and singing along to karaoke together, in Arabic, French, and English. It was so much fun. We came back to the hotel at 3am.

 A woman dances to the beat of the drums in the ancient Roman theater of Bosra, southern Syria, 2009

That was my first day in Syria. The first of many such amazing, unforgettable encounters with men and women of different backgrounds who all shared an acute sense of hospitality and dignity.
I never saw the old man nor his two sons again. I wrote to them a few times but never got a response - perhaps my letters never reached them. I also tried to contact the son who lives in Montréal but my attempts were unsuccessful. Over the years, I would sometimes think of them and wonder how they were. Since the war broke out, I am expecting the worst.

 Night time by the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, 2009

 Umayyad Mosque, inner courtyard, Damascus, 2009

In the face of the horror Syria is now facing, I thought I should humbly pay tribute to the old man, his sons, and more generally the many kind-hearted human beings I have met in Syria and elsewhere over the years. I have decided to do so by joining the sponsoring group Room for More. For beyond the places we come from, beyond our cultures, religions, or political views, we all share the experience of being human. And as such, I believe we all deserve to live and help others live in peace and dignity.

 A fish vendor and his daughter, Damascus, 2009

Night out, Damascus, 2009

 Nut vendors, Damascus souq, 2009

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