Hama Weekend, Part 4: The Former-Yugoslavians

Wednesday, August 3, 2005 | Hamah, Syria

New friends, exploring Qasr ibn Wardan in the desert east of Hama
After a late afternoon nap on the hotel rooftop, I tried to chat with a Jordanian man who was staying there. His Arabic had a different sound, that much was noticeable. He didn't have much information to offer me, though, so I still don't know quite what to expect for the next phase of my adventures.

Next, I met a few fellow guests on the roof—Staša, her brother Jure, and their friend Matjaz—three Slovenian 20-somethings backpacking through Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They were friendly, and spoke excellent English, so I joined them for dinner at a nearby kebab stand, then we picked up some beers and headed to the town's central park, straddling the Orontes.

There, we met a few old Syrian men out for their evening stroll, and chatted with them about life, politics, religion. The most talkative one kept drilling home his message: "We are all sons of
Abraham; all three Peoples of the Book." My new Slovenian friends knew no Arabic, so I translated all of this, until one gentleman asked us where we were from.

At that point, the Slovenians needed no translation. Having learned weeks earlier that nobody knew of their small country (even I had to look up its location on a map when I came back this weekend), Matjaz had developed a fool-proof response: "Yugoslavia! You know, Tito?!" At the mention of their fellow Soviet client state, the Syrians always perked up and smiled, while Staša just hung her head in shame, laughing despite herself. While it might not have been appropriate in the "new Slovenia", in Syria, I noted, their humor certainly brought more smiles than, "I'm American".

* * *

Sunday morning, the Slovenians had no plans. I wanted to visit the Qasr Ibn Wardan, however, and convinced them to join me. (I think they were happy to accompany an Arabic speaker around.)

The Qasr Ibn Wardan (قصر إبن وردان) is an isolated stronghold in the desert east of Hama, and took a fair bit of finagling and some hitchhiking to reach. The fortress' facade, yellow sandstone broken by bands of black, was pocked and worn by the elements. Shattered carvings and mosaics littered one courtyard.

We wandered through the roofless arcades and climbed crumbling towers. From the top, we could watch small tornadoes cycle across the sizzling desert all around us. There was nobody and nothing else in sight, and the caretaker seemed to be very bored, out here beside the empty highway.

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