Few Americans travel to Syria. I was there for two weeks to visit castles built by Crusaders in the 12th century. In the course of my trip, I found many things to admire about Syrians.
Strong family ties is one of them. The Great Mosque at Damascus is like a family living room. There is respect for the surroundings, for it is an important place of worship, but not awe. Parents allow their young children to roll on the rugs of the mosque and play hide-and-seek among the columns in the magnificent courtyard leading to the mosque. Their affection for their children is manifest.
Hospitality is another. Visitors are welcomed warmly, even by Damascus and Aleppo cab drivers (for a New York cab user, an unusual experience). Their speeding through streets jammed with people and vehicles is harrowing, though.
In Aleppo one evening, I was admiring the citadel. Nine young children, and the father of one of them, came over to talk. Since I speak no Arabic and they no English, our exchanges were at a very basic level, but there was no mistaking their friendliness.
Young Syrians are eager to practice their English. A teenage boy stopped me outside a florist shop. In his uncle's absence, he was tending the shop. As customers came and went, we spoke English. He told me he listens to English conversation tapes.
Humor helps to surmount language barriers. Syrians and I found ourselves laughing at the same things. Often it revolved around the absurdity of a grown man, namely me, communicating in childlike ways. If I needed milk, I would say "moo!" and make other animal sounds when requesting meat or poultry dishes.
Generosity is an appealing quality. Over and over again I met Syrians of modest means who were generous to me: The Ferris-wheel operator in Latakia, Syria's main Mediterranean port, who insisted on giving my companions and me free rides. (Neither he nor his business seemed to be prospering, but to honor visitors was something he deemed important.) The children who presented us with pomegranates at a Crusader castle in the countryside. Strangers who invited me into their homes and offered refreshment, with no expectation of a reward. A man on the street offering me bread he had just purchased.
Driving across the Syrian desert on our way to the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, we came upon two Bedouin boys tending a herd of camels. In the same spirit of generosity I had encountered, our Syrian guide provided the boys with a large bottle of water, a gift they gratefully accepted.
During my time in Syria, I learned something about the country, its history, Islam, and Crusader castles. And I learned about Syrian hospitality and generosity, virtues I hope to emulate in my own daily life.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society