So should we stay, or should we go?
Last Saturday we flew to Damascus. The four day holiday has been booked months ago, but two days before the flight we start to get nervous as news filters through about the shootings at demonstrations. We haunt the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice site. We will decide after watching Friday night TV news and yes, Syria is the first item, with films of demonstrations violently broken up. Protests have reached Damascus. We aren’t going. Definitely. But on the other hand… oh what a time to be there.
In the morning, an hour before our taxi arrives, we ring the Foreign and Commonwealth Office helpline for their expert advice. They ask us if we can we spell Syria for them, and then give us travel advice for Sierra Leone. No, I’m not joking. We decide to go. At the airport, I get cold feet, but then see the line of people waiting to board the plane.
Of all things, it is a SAGA holiday tour. Well, if a coach party can do it…
From the airport departure lounge, we watch the video footage of the London march and feel lucky that a British protest is such a different beast. Ironically, it is footage we will see again and again while we are in Syria, where people can’t see the difference as they tut-tut over what is going on in London. It’s tempting to blame the media, but no shootings, we say.
No shootings here, everyone emphatically tells us. Don’t believe the media. Everything, it seems, is the media’s fault.
‘You will be completely safe here,’ our taxi driver on the way to the hotel from the airport tells us. ‘You probably have about 100 secret policemen in your street alone. Of course, you will not recognise them because they are secret.’
And so of course, I become obsessed. A holiday joke. Is he secret, no but she is. As a game though, it is hardly the most comforting.
We are kept up all night by the noise of cars driving round Damascus hooting. Flags hanging out of the car windows, so many people in each vehicle that some are hanging from the car roof. If you have been to old city of Damascus and seen how narrow the streets are, you can imagine the chaos. And the levels of noise.
And all the time, we are trying to work out the real story of what’s going on. We don’t want to ask too openly what people think, not when there are those 100 secret policemen who might be listening in too. And because too Syria’s story isn’t our story to tell. Just as we are tourists to the country, so we are tourists to its troubles too. It’s the media’s fault, we are told again and again. Do not believe the media.
Despite a sleepless night listening to the car horns and working out how we are going to get home if everything blows up, we decide to give it one more day.
The city seems strangely peaceful, and then we find out that every Syrian has apparently been sent a text by the Government reassuring them that change is on its way so please don’t go out on the streets to show your support again. Or at least not until we tell you to.
Damascus is like a joke in its beauty, with history and the stories on every corner. Albeit much – apart from the public and religious buildings – is in need of repair. We estimate that about a third of the buildings in Damascus are in a state of collapse.
It is surreal that, at the same time as we receive messages from people at home wondering if we are OK, we are busy admiring the cake shops, the flower stalls, the way life goes on not just normally but gracefully.
Well, in the bits we are in, at least. We hear whispers of three people shot in the university area. Of London universities advising their exchange students to come home straight away. Of unrest brewing.
‘Welcome,’ we are told wherever we go. ‘Welcome to my country.’ At the main Mosque, I am sitting in the courtyard when an Iranian girl comes up to try out her English. She is swiftly followed by her whole family who sit down and surround us, while she translates for them. ‘Please tell your people that we like Europeans,’ her uncle tells us. ‘We are not bad,’ her mother says. ‘My dream,’ the girl tells us herself, ‘is to come to London one day.’ She is having extra English lessons. ‘Europe is good,’ she says. ‘Do not believe the media.’
When we meet them outside, they ask to take our photograph. ‘If you come to London,’ I tell my new friend, as the camera clicks and she tightens her grip on my waist, ‘you must come to us.’ But in today’s reality, a photograph is probably as permanent as any of these fleeting friendships go.
In Colin Thubron’s book, Mirror to Damascus, he says the Syrians like to talk about fighting more than they like to fight. It’s an interesting comment to read at this time, especially when, at the museums and galleries, we read about Syria’s past. Of violent deaths of leaders, of coups, and massacres, and constant regime changes.
But now everywhere we go, in shop windows, plastered over cars, on flags from every corner, the President’s blue eyes peer out at us. He’d wanted to be an ophthalmologist In London, we know, so it seems strange that the only photographs in which he looks threatening are those where he is wearing sunglasses. Mostly he is smiling. And watching.
We drive to Palmyra and on the way, take touristy photographs of the signs showing the road to Iraq. We walk around the Roman ruins, and wonder at the idea of Palmyrans being found on Hadrian’s Wall. From this beauty and sophistication, and above all, sun, what must they have thought of northern England at that time?
And everywhere we go in Palmyra we are surrounded by death. Our first visit is to the tombs – ‘I command you to be first,’ says our guide which seems a little bit doubtful looking at the hordes of German tourists already queuing up in front of us, but he pushes us through and we race up the steps to be, yay, first. To be anything other would have felt like letting him down.
After a magical, unbelievable day walking round Roman ruins, we walk up to the citadel as the day darkens, and suddenly we see how the tombs of the ancestors would have dominated everyday life. There would have been no way of getting away from them. Imagine if that’s your mother in law there, I say to the guide. Imagine if it’s your first wife, he replies.
And on the way back we read a text he receives in English over his shoulder. It’s sneaky, but it seems the only way to get information here. A march is planned for tomorrow in Damascus.
We wake up to the sounds of chanting. I rush to look out, but there’s nothing. The street is as quiet as can be, but then we find out that it is the local school at the back of the hotel. They have placards and are waving them. Later, during breakfast, the noise is more adult and when we go up to the hotel’s roof, we watch a parade going through the old town on its way to the main square.
Is it forced? The papers we will read later when we’re back home say so. But then they also tell us that all foreign media is banned in Syria, and we have seen ourselves how that day’s copies of American and French papers are on sale and displayed openly in newsagents. Foreign news channels are available on our hotel television.
Just a children’s march, the Times says, but despite our wake up call, the people we see taking part later are definitely adults. Of all ages, and of all kinds – men, women, business suited, casual dressed, robed, bare headed, and many dressed as if for a party.
Of course we don’t know, but despite my fears it doesn’t feel threatening.
And flags. The Syrian flag is everywhere. Even the cranes wave the flag.
That night, we are told that the Syrian government have resigned. On the way to the airport on Wednesday morning, we hear that change is on its way. The President will make a speech that day and all will be good for Syria. What a privilege to have been here now, we think. To have seen a country right at the start of its period of change.
However, by the time, we arrive in London we listen to the news and find out that although the President made a speech, nothing has really changed. And all the promises have remained just that, promises. It is, apparently, all the fault of the media.
And now who knows what will happen next? All we can do is wish Syria well.
(Note, all these photographs were taken either by myself or my son, Hugh Salway, over the last few days. We would ask that you don’t reproduce any without asking permission first. Thank you.)