On not having my throat slit in Syria

Nov_2008_damascus 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.


  1. I’ve heard that Syria is a very friendly place. Those are nice stories, Ronan. I’m sure you would have a similar experience in Iran, too.

  2. Iran’s on the list of places to visit in the near future.

  3. Thank you, Ronan, for this post. I love the way you tied in our current situation with such a lovely reminded of how those we revile often would be wonderful dinner companions and hospitable hosts – if only we got to know them as real people.

  4. Ronan’s too polite to say it, of course, but this also ought to remind us that many Mormons’ view of gay people is informed chiefly by 30-second clips of NAMBLA antics at the San Francisco pride parade. Someday we’ll learn better and be ashamed of our ignorant prejudice.

  5. Researcher says:

    My grandparents had an adventurous and very eventful visit to Syria about 30 years ago for archaeological reasons. They had some amazing experiences there connecting with the people that are reminiscent of yours. They also felt the military situation at that time very keenly, of course!

    I’m sure you’re joking about Iran, but I’ll mention that the Persians I’ve known, both in and out of the church, in Europe and in the United States, have been some of the loveliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever known. I wish I was able to host visitors and make people comfortable like they can.

  6. I’m not at all joking about Iran. I’d be happy to go there tomorrow. That’s not reckless bravado, that’s reality: Iran is safe for foreigners to visit.

  7. Eric Russell says:

    I’d be happy to go to Iraq.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stories, Ronan. Your point is actually one of the three suggestions from Krister Stendahl about how to relate to other religions: don’t compare your best against their worst.

  9. Kev,
    Mormons should also not compare our worst with their best. Put the cinder block ward house up against Chartres and you lose!

  10. david knowlton says:

    I would love to visit Syria. You make me want to pack my bags.

  11. Thanks for this post.

    I lived in Syria for a year in 2004-2005 and have gone back a couple times since then for visits. Everything you experienced there in your short trip holds true for a longer stay as well.

    The Damascus branch is also my favorite place to go to church, but don’t tell the Syrians that since we don’t officially exist there.

  12. Bridget,
    I just had a look at your blog and remembered, with great fondness, the wonderful thing that was Pizza Hot.

  13. As a fat American, I really resent the conflation of fat with stupid.

  14. In defense of Great Britain (including London), I met some wonderful people there as a solo backpacker. I’ve noticed that people tend to be friendlier to solo travelers as opposed to groups, and that people in non-touristy areas tend to be the friendliest. Traveling opened my eyes to the goodness of people more than anything else ever has.

  15. When we were in the middle east, one of my son’s best friends was Syrian, and the other Pakistani. Great kids, from wonderful families. Our kids’ piano teacher was Iranian. Our doctors were Iraqi. I miss all of them & would love to go back.

    Thanks for this post.

  16. Jeremiah J. says:

    I’d say you’re beating up a straw man, Ronan, but I guess it is pretty believable that some Westerners would think that Syria is dangerous for tourists. In fact that Middle East as a whole, absent the country the U.S. is curently occupying, is one of the safest regions in the world for American tourists (I don’t know numbers for Brits).
    So yes, visit Beruit, Damascus, Amman, and Cairo.

    “Just this week I was arguing with a group of 15-year-olds that not all Americans are “stupid and fat.””

    Sorry, I haven’t been as dilligent in fostering good relations over here. Americans adore the British to such an unhealthy degree nowadays that I’m constantly trying (half-seriously) to whip my students into a Jeffersonian or Celtic disdain for the UK.

  17. This is lovely, Ronan. I have similar stories of hospitality from my time just outside of Skegness. (You remember my trip to Skeggy!) So don’t give up on your own people just yet.

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