The Syria I knew

A long-ago encounter shows what stays, what fades.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor
Damascus, 1983: A shopkeeper (r.) urges passersby to buy suit material.

Latakia, coastal Syria, September 1982: It was twilight, night coming fast. I asked the clerk about buses to Damascus. One, he said, was leaving now. Across the yard, a mechanical brute coughed smoke and struggled for second gear.

Jumping onto slow-moving public transportation was a skill I'd honed after three months in Cairo. I sprinted over, ran alongside, and leapt for the open rear door.

Safely aboard, I stood and swayed, eyes adjusting to the unlit interior, hoping for a seat. No luck.

Then a young man in the last row smiled and made space for me.

Only when I sat down did I see that all the passengers around me wore uniforms. The bus was full of soldiers. They stared at the puzzled foreigner.

I told the smiling young man I thought this was the bus to Damascus.

It was, he said. The Army had commandeered it. Training exercises, he said. He introduced himself: Khalid was his name. He showed me family photos. He had two infant boys.

Then an officer came and sat beside me. No smile, no introductions. He handled security for the unit, he announced curtly, and had questions for me. What business did I have here, prying information from the Syrian Armed Forces?

I was in for a long night.

I'd landed on that bus at the tail end of a holiday from studies. That May I'd arrived in Egypt as a student of Arabic at The American University in Cairo.

Come August and summer break, I was ready to escape Cairo's noise and heat. First a ferry from Alexandria to Crete and Athens, Greece; then over to Istanbul, Turkey; and a bus to the Turkish-Syrian border.

Once across the frontier, I visited Aleppo and its citadel. Its dark history casts a long shadow forward in time. It has witnessed vicious fighting in today's civil war; and the nearby 12th-century souk – the best bazaar in the Levant, where I bought silk scarves that long-ago September – went up in flames as rebels battled President Bashar al-Assad's militias.

But Aleppo then was quiet. From there I'd visited the western hill country and its Crusader castles – Krak des Chevaliers, Burj Safita, Marqab. Then over to the coastal highway, and nearby Latakia, with the idea of catching a bus to Damascus. No problem, I thought. No problem, that is, until I jumped on a bus filled with Syrian soldiers.

So, continued the security chief, why was I studying Arabic? To spy? What did I think of US policy in the Arab world? What did I think of Israel, of Syria, of then-President Hafez al-Assad?

This went on a long while. I did my best to be chatty and apolitical, trying hard not to show how nervous I felt.

I took some comfort in sensing I wasn't alone in my fear. My seatmate, Khalid, seemed to listen anxiously. When – after what felt like hours – the officer decided I was harmless and strode back to his seat, Khalid seemed as relieved as I.

But the trip wasn't over. Sometime after midnight the bus stopped by a dimly lit roadside building. "Mat'am," read the sign: a place to eat. The soldiers noisily piled out. I debated whether to set off on foot.

Khalid guessed my doubts. Best to stay with us, he urged.

Inside was loud and crowded. Men pushed forward for food. I sat in a corner and stayed quiet.

One man, a big guy with a scraggly beard and a loud voice, eyed me as he ate rice and stew. Between bites he gulped orange Fanta.

Apparently bored, he came over to my corner and bellowed something about foreigners and Americans. I didn't catch it all – he chewed as he talked – but I gathered this encounter would prove unfriendly. He put his face close to mine and started to shout. I remember the flecks of rice in his beard.

That's when Khalid stepped in and told him I was dayf wa-sadeeq, a guest and a friend. Rice-Beard glowered but stomped back to his Fanta.

Near Damascus, the bus pulled into a large military post. Khalid kept me close beside him. Safer to spend the night here, he said, than to walk about on the road at night and risk being picked up by a security patrol.

So I spent what was left of the night on a cot in the barracks. Khalid slept nearby. At first light he woke me and led me out to the gate. He shook my hand and pointed down the road. Damascus, he said. I hurried off.

The Syria I knew is gone. What remains is the memory of a stranger's kindness and his willingness to stand up for a foreigner, a guest, and a friend.

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