I’ve visited Syria five times in the past two years, spending almost a month each time traveling around the country often on my own with Syrian friends as guides and translators. Other times I’ve been with small tour groups I’ve organized of other writers and activists from around the world with interest in seeing reality on the ground there for ourselves. Many other Americans and Europeans have also gone throughout the war years either in tour groups or fact-finding delegations; like me, several have gone multiple times. My own journeys started after four years and thousands of hours of research since November of 2012. After those four years, I determined I had to go myself and see if what I had learned about the country, people, and war matched reality. Like all the other travelers in the groups I’ve organized, I’m always longing to be back.
As an introduction and just to make it clear from the beginning, I’m 100% independent and 100% self-funded. My husband’s hard labor as a handyman pays the lion’s share of these trips supplemented with much appreciated help from family and friends. I have no agenda or mission other than to learn, observe and spend time with Syrians in their wonderful country and then share those insights and experiences with anyone who will listen here.
My tale is long, readers and I apologize for that but it can’t be told in sound bites. Syria is a complex nation and society, a geo-political entity throughout the ages since civilization began and deserves – and rewards – time and effort spent getting to know it. It is often described as a beautiful mosaic of different colors and textures but for me it is more like a brilliant, endlessly faceted, multi-colored gemstone – three dimensional. I’ve looked into only some of its facets so far, always wanting to see deeper and deeper inside. Since the war began it is too often painted one-dimensionally, with the limited and misleading palette in the white and black of biased opinion, or the white/gray of bombed buildings and red of blood. What a travesty of truth to portray it so.
Typically for westerners, the trip begins by flying into Beirut, Lebanon (although some airlines offer flights to Damascus Airport which I was delighted to do once). Getting a visa is still difficult now, sometimes impossible particularly for Americans, not like before the war when Syria was one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations and they welcomed millions of visitors from all over the world. Once the visa is finalized however, the next step is riding by car or bus over the border to Damascus, which because of necessary border control and check points can take about four hours. I travel lightly equipment wise with only my cell phone usually to communicate with my family and friends back home, to take photos and videos, and to write my Facebook posts.
I love Lebanon – a gorgeous, California-esque, place with great food and fun people – and it’s a great transition from west to east with its familiar billboards for western chain stores and restaurants mixing with the Arab culture. But I can’t help it – each time I get across the border into Syria and am checked out through several checkpoints my mouth won’t stop smiling. Usually those smiles are returned heartily with a greeting by the soldiers, “You are most welcome in Syria” they say in English. How odd it might sound that a breath of relief and peace comes when entering a war zone and not the opposite.
Finally the car dives over the second stretch of hills and Damascus comes into view! The world’s oldest, continually populated capital city, Damascus is modern and ancient, clean and comfortable, welcoming and gracious and in many parts of the city the war has left little visual trace. It’s quite different in some of the suburbs though where battles have been fought.
At one point, all of Damascus was ringed with black, grey and brown smoke, the telltale signs of war as it was surrounded by legions of different militant armed groups all wanting to take control of the capital. Smoke is also very familiar to the civilians within the city, the telltale sign of “rebel” mortars, suicide bombs or car bombs that the militant groups used constantly to terrorize and slaughter people who were shopping or working, kids going to school, couples getting married or just having coffee in their homes. Roads through or close to neighbourhoods once occupied by “rebels” (you’ll understand why I put the word rebel in quotation marks if you keep reading) that on my first trips were closed are now open and there is damage that can be seen, small and great, that speaks of the hard fighting that took place there.
Eventually after skirting the modern city the driver will let me off in Old Damascus, outside one of the main ancient gates that encircle it like the Bab Touma gate and with my rolling bag I go, almost as through a time portal, to the wondrous, captivating streets and alleyways of the old city and my favorite beautiful home-away-from-home, Beit Alwali hotel there.
For me, there is no better place to get lost, which is a good thing because getting lost is quite easy to do as the narrow alleys wind and wind and offer no skyline point to navigate by. Cafés, shops, bars, mosques, churches, schools, art galleries, hotels and homes all share the ancient core of the city and there are delights around every corner. The family run and owned shops range from humble craftsmen workshops to jaw dropping grand art and antique emporiums and stopping in, even just to shop with the eye as I do, invariably results in an invitation for coffee or tea.
Of course Old Damascus is home to the famous ancient Al-Hamidiyah Souq (souq means market), a small city within the Old City of covered avenues and alleys jammed packed with everything from finely hand woven Damask silks (where Queen Elizabeth shopped for her wedding gown fabric) to women’s risqué lingerie, ice cream, spices, meats, fruits and vegetables, shoes, toys, furniture, you name it. Except for Fridays when shops are closed, there is always a river of people streaming both directions in the Souq. Once I had the time and patience to wait in the perennially long line for the famous Bakdash hand pounded ice cream, and yes, it was worth it!
Syria is home to both traditionalists and progressives and it shows on the streets. The government and society are secular and tolerant; the population is approximately 90% Muslim, mostly Sunni as well as Alawites, traditional Shiites, Druze, Ismailis, and other sects. Before the war, Christians were about 10% of the population with every major denomination represented. While Eastern Orthodox and Catholic predominate, Protestant churches whether Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian or others are there as well. Perhaps half of Syria’s Christians are gone now from relocation or death.
There are still some Jews remaining in Syria although many left after the war began. I have met a few including the Rabbi and his wife of the Old Damascus Synagogue and the now-destroyed Jobar Synagogue. The homes of Jews (those not destroyed during the war anyway) are held by the Syrian government for their owners and their families in perpetuity hopeful that the Jews of Syria will return.
While the Syrian government has sought to uphold and preserve the secular and tolerant fabric of society, the western-backed “rebels” have targeted minorities for expulsion, persecution and some, like Alawites and often Christians, for outright annihilation by some groups. Sunnis also however have been ruthlessly killed, tortured, kidnapped and oppressed by “rebels”, particularly when standing up against the violent religious intolerance of the “rebels” supported by the west and their regional allies. This is one of the many reasons why the great majority of Syrians including most of the Sunni majority have rallied around their leader and army against the extremists of the “revolution”.
Within the religions is the full spectrum of adherents from the devout to nominally, or never, practicing. Some hold to beliefs going back to before the Big 3 – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many Syrians are either deists or outright atheists who have lost all trust in organized religion or, particularly after seeing the carnage of this war, God. This religious diversity and the traditional cultural harmony between them all is prized by most Syrians and one of the things that’s been hit hardest by the war. I visited a Christian-run children’s orphanage on my last trip. All the medical care is provided to the children free through a local Shiite mosque and this is typical also. Christians prepare Iftar meals during Ramadan for Muslim neighbors and friends and Muslims go to Christmas and Easter celebrations. One pair of elderly Jewish sisters were purchased a home by a Muslim friend and they’re cared for by him and other Muslim and Christian neighbors.
Women have basically equal rights there. It’s common to see women friends or mothers and daughters for example walking arm in arm with one in western clothes, maybe t-shirt, jeans and no head covering and the other fully covered or wearing hijab. Whether women wear miniskirts or jeans or burkas, it is up to them and their families. Most importantly, women are a part of every aspect of Syrian society. They are high ranking government officials and armed services officers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, business owners, professors, community leaders, jet pilots, artists, musicians etc. Before the war, Syria was listed as the fifth safest country for personal safety by Gallup Poll’s Top 5. Women could walk alone in the wee hours without being disturbed. Crime was low, almost non-existent. Even though the country is at war, I personally feel quite safe there from crime and non-conflict based violence.
The violence that erupted March of 2011 in Dara’a (after years of the CIA and other western intelligence agencies partnering with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood to foment sectarian distrust and rebellion), spread rapidly throughout the country and shattered that safety; it shattered much more than that. Every aspect of people’s lives and the society have been greatly affected. Seeing the extent of the physical, mental, emotional, cultural and generational damage is the hardest part about going there. From 2011 until now, 2018, the western narrative has been clear and the judgment final: “President Assad brutally put down peaceful protests, started recklessly killing his own people and ignited a civil war, and the Leaders of the Free World and their allies demanded he step down.” That narrative, repeated endlessly in almost every article and on every channel for over seven years, has never been seriously questioned by any main stream western media outlet that I’m aware of. And yet a housewife, sitting at my computer on our farm in Virginia had plenty of questions after taking the time out of curiosity to watch one of President Bashar al-Assad’s many in-depth interviews like the one I saw on RT late in 2012. I did not see a “isolated brutal dictator ruthlessly clinging to power by slaughtering anyone who opposed him including women and children”, but instead I saw a calm, well mannered, articulate and obviously educated person giving a side to the story I had never heard on “the news”. His version of what was happening in Syria centered around western intervention against him, battling terrorists, and the assertion that he could not remain as leader without the support of the people. At the time I was shocked at the implications and that shock combined with what seemed to be his personable demeanor made me obsessed immediately with trying to understand both the conflict and country.
Between 2011 and 2016 when I first went to Syria, the country had been going through an almost unimaginable hell as two factions waged war on one another as I watched from over 5000 miles away, reading and listening to media sources from the country, the region and the world; combing through government documents released via WikiLeaks, Judicial Watch etc.; listening to or reading every interview by President Assad as well as statements by those representing the opposition; and most importantly, connecting with Syrians both in and outside the country via social media on both sides.
It didn’t take very long to notice a pattern in media reports: people called “rebels” or “the opposition” had one goal – the removal of Bashar al Assad from power in order, we were told again and again, to establish freedom and democracy for all; people who did not share the goal of removing Assad were considered “regime loyalists”.
And it didn’t take long to notice a pattern in the reports on the ground of areas under control by either side as well as the Syrians I was in contact with, whether in or out of the country on a chat, on the phone, or via Skype. The “rebels” were all very clear on wanting to get President Assad out of power but didn’t seem as clear on what they meant by “freedom and democracy”. Even in 2012 it was becoming obvious that “rebel” areas were under harsh sharia law not just routinely but exclusively. Minorities were targeted for either dislocation, persecution or outright extinction. Women in “rebel” areas were all wearing head coverings and clothing that covered everything, long dresses or coats, long sleeves etc. There were many reports of entire villages of Alawites, traditional Shiites or Christians being massacred which may have been put down to fake news or propaganda had it not been for the “rebels” themselves posting so many videos of their atrocities as a way of boasting about them. Sunnis were not immune to “rebel” violence either if they stood up for their neighbors and friends. By the summer of 2012 all of this was so apparent that even Foreign Policy had an article called “Two Cheers for Syrian Jihadists” in which author Gary Gambill described the phenomenon of “freedom fighters” looking very much like al Qaeda but dismissed concerns about these “misfortunes” for Syrians as the violent, intolerant, mass murdering, women enslaving extremists due to it all being better for Washington’s interests. Kidnappings were de rigueur for the “rebels” as they grabbed people off the streets to hold for either ransom money or to exchange for prisoners captured by the Syrian Army and security forces. Kidnap victims were tortured whether their captors were promised ransom or not and if families couldn’t afford the usually outrageous sums or if demands for prisoner exchange were not met, the victims were executed and often cut into pieces and left on streets.
Online the “rebels” were equally unimpressive. Never at any time was there an actual leader of the revolution – not one single person emerged to unify the various groups. Nor did any of the groups seem to have any plan for a post-Assad government. One slogan was always repeated ad nauseam, “Assad must go,” in countless permutations. I’ll never forget a Skype call with someone in Syria, a man saying he was a Christian who was supporting the “rebel’s” cause. He was wearing an undershirt and was languidly smoking a cigarette. No problem really with all that but it seemed odd. In the early part of the conversation he said I could be assured he was telling the whole truth because, in his words, “Christians never lie.” “You just did,” I thought to myself.” He showed me a video then of an airstrike in Homs against the “rebels” by the Syrian Air Force that caused quite a bit of damage. “See that??” He said triumphantly. “Yes.” But what was also in the video were the “brave rebels” literally running away from the scene and leaving their families behind with possible injuries and in danger of maybe more bombs. It did not leave the impression on me he desired. On seeing my lack of horror and hearing my concerns about how the “rebel” fighters had abandoned their families, he blocked me.
On the other hand, areas under the government’s control were still secular and multi-confessional, women still had freedom, children and university students still attended school – life seemed to be almost normal there in spite of the constant terrorist threats they were under. The “rebels” routinely targeted purely civilian areas for mortars, kidnappings that always included torture, rockets, suicide and car bombs, etc. Almost 10,000 civilians including thousands of young children have died from the “rebel” terrorist attacks in Damascus. This kind of violence was the standard operating procedure from “moderate rebels” who were touted by western governments and media as the hope for Syria’s future. Everywhere in Syria it was the same – Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, the three largest cities, were under siege by those “moderate” terrorists of the US backed, armed, trained and funded Free Syrian Army or scores of other militant groups and their “brothers in arms” of Al Nusra and later ISIS for years and they controlled great swaths around almost all cities and towns.
The Syrians who were standing with the Syrian armed forces and government against the “rebels” were different from those supporting them. My questions, now I know so many were quite naïve and ignorant, were patiently and specifically answered and evidence given for their responses. Many were openly complaining about the government, particularly corruption that had always existed but that had been worsened by the war. They were completely knowledgeable of what was being said by the US and other western governments and media as Syrians have full open access to the internet, yet most displayed respect and often great affection for President Assad and his wife and the Syrian Army that is made up of Syrians from all over the country, every people and religious group, mostly Sunnis, Alawites and Shiites as well as Christians and others. Even members of the legitimate political opposition groups refused to take up arms against their country.
By early 2013, the lines between the “rebels” and the government were obvious to me. On one side was barbarism – extreme cruelty and intolerance and backwardness – backed by the US and allies. On the other side was civilization – backed by the majority of the Syrian people. I was no longer an unbiased researcher but a passionate activist determined to share what I had learned.
Every day, all day for over four years I studied not only constantly updated battle and media reports but about Syria itself, its history, culture, food, geography, flora and fauna, politics, everything I could find about the country as well as background on the other regional conflicts and the US role in them, before deciding to go as to see for myself if what I had learned matched reality on the ground. And so in May of 2016 that goal was realized for the first time. Travelers before the war had remarked consistently on how gracious the Syrian people had been to them, one American described it as “it seemed like the Syrians always had my back.” I wondered if after, at that time, five years of brutal war, Syrians would still welcome an American as they had then. Talks with contacts there who had become friends online gave enough reassurance to make me believe they might and my husband, who had been learning from me during my research also felt quite comfortable that I would be safe and well taken care of.
We had no idea; from the first moments in Damascus at the airport until now, five almost month-long trips later, the Syrians still amaze me with their friendliness and hospitality. It is overwhelming at times and always humbling.
Perhaps because the people there are so grateful to see visitors again, folks wanting to see what’s really happening there, the outpouring of love and respect has been tremendous. Getting to know Syrians, to hear their stories, to laugh and cry together is what takes me back again and again to that beautiful and gracious place – still beautiful and gracious in its suffering and steadfast refusal to stop living life in spite of everything.
Will share more stories from Damascus and all the other areas I’ve seen in future installments.