A Return to Damascus

Sunday, November 6, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Streets of Damascus in autumn
With my Syrian visa about to expire and a long weekend approaching (due to 'Eid al-Fitr, the festival at the end of Ramadan), I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to return to Damascus and see some faces from this summer.

The weekend turned out to be quite surreal—with nearly all of my old friends gone and the city dampened by a dreary winter drizzle, Damascus looked less familiar than I had expected. When I visited her home in Bab Tuma, Ra'ife was her old cheerful self, asking questions about life in Amman and cajoling me for speaking like a Jordanian. Her mother, too, seemed the same—the silent presence in the room, weathered and stone-faced.

Ra'ife's house lacked the warmth of the sunshine beaming through the grapevines, and I felt the absence of my friends from the summer. Julian had moved out shortly after I left Damascus, and
settled in Mezzeh, a neighborhood in the new town, with a friendly Syrian guy named Maisara. I stayed with them for the weekend.

We celebrated my 21st birthday Friday night with some good old-fashioned Barada beer, which still tastes uncannily like the foul-smelling river that lends it its name. It's not the greatest stuff for celebrating an epic birthday, but Julian saved the night by pulling out a few Lebanese imports and throwing a romantic comedy into the DVD player. Quite the birthday celebration.

During the day, I paid some visits to some of my favorite sites around the Old City, including the Ummayad Mosque, Souq al-Hammidiyyeh, and others. Fortunately, my trip also gave me a chance to see some sites around the city that I had missed during my whirlwind summer. In particular, I spent my days exploring some of the old Ottoman-era palaces of Damascus's urban elites, including Beit al-Aqqad (seat of the Danish Institute in Damascus), Beit as-Siba'i, Beit Jabri (now fully restored as a restaurant), Beit Nizam, Beit Quwatli, and others.

I met my former Arabic teacher, Boshra, at Beit Jabri for some lunch, and chatted a lot about life in Jordan, her hopes and dreams here in Damascus, and other topics. Before we parted, she made me promise her that I would continue taking Arabic (which I still am!).

Finally, at long last Julian and I made the drive up Jebel Qassioun (جبل قاسيون) to take in the view over the city—something that I had somehow failed to do over the summer.

* * *

The political climate, of course, wasn't ideal for an American to travel alone into Syria. In the last two weeks, UN investigators released two reports—one alleging Syrian responsibility for the killing of Lebanese PM Rafik al-Hariri and the other alleging Syrian support for the smuggling of weapons to Palestinian militants.

On the ground, I encountered less reaction than I had expected, but of course, this is Syria, I reminded myself—not exactly the kind of place that looks kindly upon political marches or other popular outcries in the streets. As had previously been my experience here, I observed little in the way of anti-Western, anti-American feelings. I saw only one group of protesters with signs decrying the UN reports. Syrians I spoke to were as friendly and welcoming as always, though admitted to feeling some worry about what actions the UN will take in the coming weeks.

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