The Road to Damascus, and London


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April 21st 2011
Published: April 21st 2011
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Dear All

Greetings from London! Just arrived back in Hammersmith after what has become a really excellent journey, through an intriguing and beautiful part of the world, and certainly at a significant time in its political situation. Quite a relief to be back now to be honest, firstly as I’m now writing from the comforts of my front room, with a cold beer waiting for me in the fridge and a hot bath to be run very shortly upstairs, but mainly as things do seem to be hotting up a bit now in Syria.

While my time in the country saw numerous instances of trouble brewing below the surface, and at times erupting, I do have the feeling that now the President has lifted the country’s State of Emergency, there may be rockier roads ahead. While this in essence does sound like a good thing, being a move towards democracy and greater freedom of expression, I do feel that that part of the world has recently been in an equilibrium state, a status quo with the balance of power between the Arab countries, Iran and Israel being acceptable. Syria is such a key country to this fragile stability that any significant rupture in the relations between the many players out there, and there are many both political and religious, may just be the lifting of the lid off this can of worms which is modern Middle Eastern International Relations.

Despite such troubles, I have rarely met such a hospitable and lovely people as the Syrians. Everywhere I went I was greeted with expressions of welcome and hospitality, with huge smiles, handshakes and the lovely hand to heart gesture of the Arabic world which I came so much to like. Three particularly warm instances of this hospitality spring to mind from my trip: firstly, the worker at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, who upon my requesting to use the hotel’s Business Centre to phone my bank in England as an ATM had annoyingly swallowed my Debit card on my second day there, allowed me to use his own personal mobile phone for the 5-minute international call to the UK, and completely insisting that I don’t give him any money for it – I really couldn’t argue against him, no matter how I tried; secondly, the taxi driver in Aleppo who in a mixture of Arabic and English I
View over DamascusView over DamascusView over Damascus

From the Four Seasons Hotel
had a great conversation with about the English Premier League, and then who refused to accept my payment for his services – I eventually did persuade him to accept the $2 taxi fare to the bus station; and finally the bus driver from Deir es-Zur to Palmyra, who upon having his windscreen smashed by the sheer force of a sandstorm wind, which must have been a severe shock to his system, profusely apologized to me for the inconvenience of the situation! What beautiful people.

An interesting thought did occur to me during one of my bus journeys, that the modern Arab seems not to have changed so much from the traditional Bedouin nomadic desert wanderer immortalized on our consciousness: the camel rider who carries a coffee pot in the one hand for hospitality, and a sword in the other in readiness for war and violence. Indeed, while the Syrian I encountered on this trip was as hospitable as could be, the region is certainly no stranger to conflict – what a paradox, and I guess to understand this paradox would be to understand the very nature of the Middle East today: no mean feat by all means.

Anyway, back to my travels – after a great relaxing stay in Palmyra, and another bumping into the Russians at the ruins and an evening walk with them to the nearby Valley of the Tombs to watch the sunset over the desert, I caught my final bus back to Damascus, the capital. I had planned to spend my last full day there on a day trip to nearby Maalula, one of the last places on earth where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. Unfortunately though, my journey fatigue really got the better of me on that day, and I stuck to Damascus. Very glad I did though, as I discovered some great sides to the city previously unseen: namely the eastern, Christian side of the Old City, including the Chapel of St Paul built in the very section of the wall where St Paul was lowered down in a basket to avoid capture by the authorities there, and also a visit to the Chapel of St Ananias, built on the spot where lived the Saint who healed St Paul's blindness from the Road to Damascus, and baptized him in the nearby Barada River. I also had a traditional Syrian Hammam, which was probably my best hammam yet, taking into account Turkey, Morocco and Tunisia. For a mere $10 I was treated like a King by the many servant-like figures who worked there – there was a guy who scrubbed me, a guy who massaged, a guy who gave me tea, and even a guy who dried me with a towel despite my gestures that I could do this last thing myself…!

And of course my last stop would have been incomplete without meeting again the Russians – our 7th encounter, but this time, as opposed to the previous six, was not an amazing coincidence as we actually arranged it through texting. Dinner in Al-Merjeh, the budget hotel area of the city. Andrey and Janna, two really great people whose company I was blessed with at most of my stops in Syria – a real pleasure it was to meet them, and hoping we can meet again at some point soon. I keep expecting to bump into them here in London – Tesco, or the tube station perhaps!

All that’s left is to hope that things in Syria will reach a peaceful resolution, though I really do think
Damascus Old CityDamascus Old CityDamascus Old City

East-side Christian Quarter
it will get worse before it gets better. After the Foreign Office issued a travel advisory last week advising against all but essential travel to the country, they upgraded this yesterday to state that all British Nationals should leave the country by commercial means. This is not an emergency situation as yet, but the fact that some of the main roads in the country between Homs, Aleppo and Damascus have now been closed off, means I am pretty glad to have left when I did.

Thanks for reading my blog! I hope it hasn’t been too long-winded or boring. Do watch this space for my next one – am seriously considering a trip to Sub-Saharan African lands again this summer – can’t wait!

All the best

Ali-Iskandar


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Damascus Old City
St Paul's Chapel, DamascusSt Paul's Chapel, Damascus
St Paul's Chapel, Damascus

Where St Paul was lowered out of the city from a basket
Chapel of AnaniasChapel of Ananias
Chapel of Ananias

Where the man who healed St Paul's blindness from the Road to Damascus, and who baptised him in the Barada River, once lived
View Towards Al-MerjehView Towards Al-Merjeh
View Towards Al-Merjeh

Damascus, from the Four Seasons Hotel
View Towards Jebel QassiounView Towards Jebel Qassioun
View Towards Jebel Qassioun

Damascus, from the Four Seasons Hotel
The Mt Lebanon RangeThe Mt Lebanon Range
The Mt Lebanon Range

From the Aeroplane Home


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