A few months after we married in 1999, and with son one safely deposited in utero, Rebecca, myself, and a couple of university friends travelled around Syria. We visited museums in Damascus and Aleppo, archaeological sites on the banks of the Euphrates, and crusader fortresses high up in the anti-Lebanon. The worst thing that happened was a severe case of Hammurabi’s revenge gained from eating dodgy bedouin food in the desert near Palmyra. The good things are too innumerable to list. Here are a couple.
Somewhere outside of Homs, just as we entered the desert, the car overheated. The rental had not come with Syrian AAA, so we sat there grimly wondering what the hell we would do. A local guy on his moped pulled up and offered to help. We ended up riding around various desert villages looking for parts which he then duly used to fix the car, offering us dinner at his home in the meantime. He refused payment.
Syrian hospitality also informs the second story. Rebecca flew home from Damascus a week before I did. One afternoon I was strolling back from reading newspapers at the British Council when a Syrian man approached me and invited me for coffee. He was a lawyer and wanted to speak English. We chatted for a while and he eventually brought me to his home to meet the family. He lived in the mountains outside Damascus where we spent the evening eating, laughing, and watching CNN. His whole extended family came to the home to meet me and I ended up staying the night in their guest room. He let me call Rebecca back in England.
It should be obvious by now that I was struck by the friendliness and hospitality of Syrians. I could tell other stories — like the one where I ate dinner with a work crew at Damascus airport (my flight left at 3am) — but these will suffice. I remember arriving back in Heathrow and feeling deflated by the busyness and isolation of my own culture. There is no way in hell that I would eat and drink with some random stranger who approached me on a London street, let alone sleep in their home. And yet in Syria it felt perfectly natural and utterly safe. You would have to have been there to fully understand.
Most people thought we were insane to spend any time in Syria. Vague ideas about Arab/Muslim violence, Syria’s support of Hezbollah, and the Assad dictatorship, translate in many people’s minds to a country where westerners would be lucky to retain their heads. This notion will only have increased since 2001. It is, of course, utter bollocks, completely opposite to my own experience and that of many others who have enjoyed Syria.
We have a tendency to judge things by the worst in them. For Syria, we condemn a whole people because of their government and the sins committed by their Arab brethren. We fail to recognise that we would fall by the same sword. I like to think that my lawyer friend remembers me as a friendly Englishman who enjoyed an evening of shared humanity with him, and not as the caricature (deserved or not) of an empire-hungry, Muslim-hating, morally decadent crusader that is a popular Arab view of the generic westerner.
Many people in my country dislike Americans in the same way, applying the worst in a country to condemn a whole nation. Just this week I was arguing with a group of 15-year-olds that not all Americans are “stupid and fat.”
The same goes for religion. We Mormons have a tendency to commit this same fallacy. We take the worst and judge the whole. Roman Catholicism is defamed because of the sins of medieval popes; the Church of England is brushed aside because of Henry VIII; “creedal Christians” are mocked because we imagine they spend their lives dreaming of homoousious. We would hardly wish the whole of Mormonism to be judged for the Missouri Danites, Brigham Young’s racism, Mountain Meadows, or Warren Jeffs. And yet people do precisely that.