Margaret O’Connor writes: I liked Syria so much on my first visit in 2009 that I came back again earlier this year before the current unrest made travel there problematic. It’s that combination of history that got me, and the people, so unexpectedly warm and full of generous ways — from sharing their sweets with you on a bus trip from Damascus to Palmrya to searching up and down the street for someone with sufficient English to guide you back to the Ummayad Mosque, after you have become hopelessly lost in the myriad labyrinthine ways of the Old City of Damascus. These are seriously charming people, a fact which I’ve beaten friends, family and work colleagues over the head with ever since.
Returning this year to Syria, I was in the company of a fellow volunteer, David. Given the amount of fantastic sites of archaeological and historical interest on offer, we aimed to see things both of us had missed on previous trips. After a wonderful day of sightseeing around Hama, we parted ways. I travelled on to Aleppo, and David to the Syrian coast and then to Damascus.
We caught up again by email after our return to Australia. He had, he said, been endeavouring to find my email address “to let you know of the tale of woe that befell me after arriving in Damascus”.
David had been exploring Straight Street. This ancient road (Via Recta in Latin) dates back to the Romans and is mentioned in old texts, notably the Acts in the Apostles. But Damascus was old even in the time of the Romans. It’s called Dimasqu in the Ancient Egyptian Amarna letters and features in geographical lists of the King Thutmose the Third in the 15th century BC. Visitors to this part of the world are constantly colliding with ancient history, in a spine-tingling kind of way, and never more than here. Damascus may well be the oldest city in the world, archaeologists don’t know for sure.
Anyway, David was exploring Straight Street, which is cobbled. He caught his shoe between two cobblestones and down he went, injuring his knee so badly that he found himself unable to move. He had torn the quadriceps tendon from the knee cap and would eventually require a major operation back in Australia to have it sewn back on.
Syrians passing in the street stopped, called an ambulance, and waited and took care of David until he could get to hospital. The manager of his hotel visited him in hospital, made a driver available, paid his medical bills until David could get access to money himself, and had his staff bring him meals in hospital.
In our post-travels email exchange David said that at that stage he “still hadn’t figured out a way to repay (the manager) for his kindness.” End of story.
Syria’s in the news a lot at the moment, for all the wrong reasons. It’s tragic to see it unfold on the nightly news. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Syrians who have fled the military bombardments and violence in their own country into Lebanon and Turkey – exact numbers are difficult to confirm – have no belongings, and they urgently need “food, shelter and medical help”.
Fingers crossed, the same Syrians who were big-hearted enough to go out of their way for an injured stranger from the other side of the world, lying in pain on the cobbled stones of an ancient street, are themselves okay and safe and well in the current unrest. If there’s any justice in life they will be. Let’s hope that if they are forced to seek resettlement, assistance and safe haven in another country, they are at the receiving end of the same hospitality that they so frequently show to other people who are visitors to theirs.
You can find more of Margaret’s writings at her blog.