We graduated from the Markaz Al-Lughaat (Language Center) of the University of Jordan last Tuesday. After a couple of days of packing and saying goodbyes, we set forth on a journey to Syria. We left early on Friday morning by service taxi, a type of taxi that has fixed routes such as Amman-Damascus and that is allowed to cross the border. Our trip from Amman to Damascus lasted about five hours, including the hassle of getting a visa at the border for our British friend. The landscape awaiting us after the border was not the most appealing. Lots of trash and uncompleted constructions were lining up on the streets. As we were approaching Damascus and about to drop our friends who were to continue on to Beirut at the bus station, I started feeling anxious, worried that we would not be able to communicate and find our way in this huge foreign city. I thought: this might finally be the culture chock I was waiting for! But then, unexpectedly and inexplicably, in a fraction of seconds, this feeling of anxiety let place to the strangest thought: perhaps I would like to live here one day. Since then, I have been falling in love with Damascus.
Back in Amman, Jordanians told us awful things about Syria and how we would not like it and should plan on spending more time in Lebanon. Contrary to their warning, we found Damascus’s old city, with its narrow alleyways and large souqs (markets) incredibly charming, and I don’t think it can be owed to low expectations. Damascus is considerably greener than Amman. It has many parks and a variety of trees. It’s architecture is beautiful and diversified due to its long life as a center for trade in the Middle East. Many of its old buildings have been or are currently being restored. Newer flats and high tours are also found among them. The city is kept incredibly clean and we don’t feel as much looked at as in Amman. Not to say that Amman was bad. We appreciated its varied neighborhoods and the safety it insured us as first-time travelers to the Middle East, but Damascus is something different. It has a lot of character and charm.
Since our arrival we have been staying in an enchanting hostel (one-star hotel). Its staff is very hospitable and there are two beautiful courtyards, one where people sit, read and enjoy smoking shisha or chatting over a cup of tea, and one where we sleep. When we arrived, the hostel fully booked, even the rooftop was full, so they just took out several more mattresses and pillows and put them out on the ground in the courtyard for us. While this may seem pretty uncomfortable, it makes us feel cozy and home. We are not afraid about living our bags out all day because it is really just a bunch of sympathetic budget travelers who travel with the least amount and wish only to discover new places and peoples and the nicest staff.
The day before yesterday, we travelled north to Aleppo by train. What was supposed to be the beginning of a relaxing journey towards the Mediterranean sea, with to coastal city of Lattakia as our ultimate destination, ended up being a 24-hour nightmare. You know how just a few bad experiences can tarnish your memories of a whole city? Well, that is what happened to us in Aleppo. We left Damascus at 6am to catch our train and arrived in Aleppo exhausted 5 hours later. The first hour or so was great: we registered in a hostel that loved Quebecers (they even had a Quebec flag! and it was the only flag) and then took our lunch in a restaurant where you can pick your dish from looking at the pots in the kitchen! But later, as we were walking towards the souqs, we found ourselves surrounded by dirt, nauseating smells, etc. Walking in the souqs to the citadel wasn’t very pleasant either. We were constantly harassed by the shop owners and were just too exhausted to appreciate anything. We had heard of Aleppo’s food as being the best in Syria, and headed towards what was supposed to be its best restaurant according to the Lonely Planet, but it did not exist anymore. We ended up in a chic restaurant, for lack of anything else, and ate a dish in which the main ingredient was red chilly peppers. Somehow I thought I could handle it…I was wrong.
We were suppose to leave for Lattakia at 6am the next morning. In the evening, several people told us the city had become really expensive in the past few years and that there wasn’t much to see or to do. At 5am we woke up and not feeling too well, we decided to go back to sleep and take the 10 o’clock train back to Damascus. By that time, I had gotten really sick from the filfil (red peppers). It was burning throughout my entire digestive system and I had to go through a 6-hour long journey on the train as we weren’t able to catch the express train. It was Hell! But lucky enough, that is also where I had one of the most interesting discussions since I arrived. As I was sitting in the wagon-restaurant, a young Syrian woman approached me. As I was telling her that I am a law student interested in human rights, she started telling me all about the condition of women in Syria and how the current law system and customs are detrimental to them. She explained to me that she studies journalism in Damascus in view of speaking up about the condition of women and children, but that the press is government-controlled in Syria and that she often wishes to escape from her reality and move to the West. She expressed the need for good and honest lawyers to cooperate in reforming the law system as an unjust system can only leads to unfair results. As much as I felt helpless sitting next to her and hearing about her daily struggles with her family and the society she lives in, I know she appreciated the opportunity to share and I somewhat felt reassured in my choice of studies. Insha’Allah, someday I can make a positive impact on the lives of these women.
Now back in Damascus until Friday, we are enjoying the homey atmosphere of our hostel and the beauty of its surroundings. The staff has been comforting, providing us with herbal tea and kind words until full recovery. Tonight, we will hopefully be able to enjoy again the best of Damascus’ food and drinks. The streets are filled with fresh blackberry juice stands and in the main souq Bakdash serves the most amazing ice cream dipped in the best pistachios. Yesterday, we also discovered a bakery that serves “pain au chocolat” and a spice shop where we smelled the finest spices and tasted delicious marzipan and chocolate. For those fans of Arab food I guess I should also mention the gorgeous courtyards where we can eat the best of hummus, shawarma, shish taouk, kebbab, fattoush…De quoi se régaler!
We will be heading to Beirut this Friday morning. I will let you know our impressions of the “Paris of the Middle East”.