I am determined not to let Syria out of my sight. I am keeping it in my consciousness and in my heart. I fell in love with that land and I left a chunk of my heart there. I don’t trust media coverage of Syria, but I now fear that things are worse, not better, than the media suggests. I’ve been told to suspect that, when my friends tell me they are well, I should assume they are lying.
When I started this little bloggy series about Syrians who inspire me, I made a nice long list of people I wanted to profile on here. I keep going back to that list, trying to decide who to write about next, but I read through the list and can’t decide. I can’t decide because they all seem too important, too climactic. I’ve honoured a few with first-profiled status, but I want to honour the rest with last-profiled status. I don’t want them to just be names or stories tossed up on CulturTwined at some point in 2012. They are too big and too special for that.
But here, today, I want to reflect on what it is about Syria that captured my imagination and my heart. Why is it that that country’s people have inspired me so much? I think, perhaps, they are not the things you might initially associate with Syria, but they are most certainly true.
…Smiles, innocence, open arms. When I picture the people I met in Syria, I picture shy smiles. Girls my age, their siblings, spouse and parents, welcoming me into their homes – either physical houses, or emotional homes in the form of a heartfelt conversation during a random encounter on the street. They look at me, the foreigner, with genuine curiosity. I think of the time a man accidentally proposed to me because he didn’t realise I was a foreigner (and marriages among Syrians have been known to be agreed on the street), and his deep shame at realising he had embarrassed me. What he said was offensive to me, but the emotion in his retraction more than made up for it. I think of the dozens upon dozens of times I have sat down to a cup of tea with a student and exchanged the most banal of questions: where are you from? do you have siblings? what is your dream for your life? In each of these interactions, I could glance into their eyes and see all the way to their hearts. They didn’t tell me every detail of their lives, but they did let me see what was deep inside, as often as not when were mere acquaintances.
…Food. I must confess I am a bit of a foodie. I love eating and I love flavours and I love cooking. I grew up in Brazil where the food is fantastic. I could eat roughly the same thing every day and never grow tired of it, even though I love variety in my diet. The food was just. that. good. Well, it turns Syria’s culinary delight is easily rival to Brazil’s; in fact, Brazil has adopted quite a bit of Syrian cuisine in its own. In a beautiful stroke of irony, I learned that there was, roughly, and inverse relationship between conservatism and skill in the kitchen. The more conservative a family, the better its women were masters of spices. To some extent, even, the more difficult family life was, it seemed like the more rich that family’s repertoire of food would be. I’m sure this can’t really be true, but sometimes it really seemed like it, and that, most certainly, gave me pause.
…Heritage, culture, history. I grew up in countries where historical monuments were 100-500 years old. History classes focused on the past 2 centuries. I knew nothing of history before I moved to Syria. In Syria, I lived in a house that was only 100 years old, but built on a foundation that was roughly 6000 years old. I visited cities and houses of worship that had thrived 2000 years ago, but had fallen into disuse. But sometimes people built on the ruins, and sometimes they were just beautiful places in the desert we could visit. This rich history pervaded all of life in Syria. In Syria, no one (except for immigration authorities) cared what my passport said. They were more interested in my father’s ethnicity, and his father’s, and his father’s and his father’s… as far back as I cared to recall. Or could recall. In Syria, people know more ancient history than modern history, it sometimes seems. While modern history is also good, I learned so much from their deep, rooted ties to antiquity.