I called my father from Lebanon and promptly told him that I was in Beirut. I then informed him that I was planning on taking a bus or taxi to Damascus, and then from Damascus, through Amman to Jerusalem. My father, ever the consummate diplomat, didn’t bat an eye and told me that Aleppo and Damascus were lovely cities, Aleppo being his favorite, and could I please buy him some peppercorns from the market? This was in 2009.
As I promised him, we took a taxi to Damascus from Beirut. Courtesy of our US passports, we ended up waiting nine hours for a Syrian visa, and I don’t think I’ve ever received my passport back with that much gratitude. While we waited, I studied Arabic, chatted with security guards, and spoke with diplomats and tourists as they passed through. Our passport officer eventually walked through the doors with a smile on his face, welcomed us to Syria, and then promptly invited us to have dinner with his extended family in Damascus. Because my friends and I were young, female, and the world was different then, we gladly accepted.
My father, ever the consummate diplomat, didn’t bat an eye and told me that Aleppo and Damascus were lovely cities, Aleppo being his favorite, and could I please buy him some peppercorns from the market?
My colleagues and I had lived in Egypt for about a year at that point, and from our experiences in Cairo, we came to Damascus with a certain amount of cynicism. Cairo is notorious for sexual harassment (even in the Arab World), and we expected no different from Damascus. Imagine our surprise when elderly Damascene gentlemen offered to walk us home in Arabic first, then French, and if all else failed, in broken English. Or, when they invited us to tea. We wandered through the Old City, and at the slightest hint that we could be lost, were inundated with directions from well-meaning men and women. The last night in Damascus, we promised that one day, we’d come back. After a much too short stay in that city, we were on our way to Amman.
Our time in Amman was even shorter than Damascus—my father had warned me that unless I wanted to spend two or three days to see Petra, or adjust our itinerary and see Jerash, I would be better off connecting through and going to Jerusalem instead. After about six hours at the gate and a particularly curious incident where we were heavily questioned about the copy of Dracula (yes, the book) that my friend had with her, we were in Jerusalem.
I knew it was only a matter of time before I went back to the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan). With the Syrian Civil War in its sixth year, over 6 million Syrians internally displaced and over 4.8 externally displaced (as of 2016), I logically understand that the Syria and Lebanon I fell in love with eight years ago have changed beyond my comprehension. But when I returned to Lebanon in April on a work-related trip, I was still flabbergasted.
The old stately buildings surrounding my holiday rental had been torn down and replaced by shiny monoliths of modernity, and when I went out to get a cup of coffee, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of Syrians, many of whom were children, begging in the street. When I went to the Bekaa Valley, the vineyards and fields that I’d associated with the Valley were dotted with white tents and refugee tenements.
I logically understand that the Syria and Lebanon I fell in love with eight years ago have changed beyond my comprehension.
Beirut still pulses with life, but this time, there was a tension that I was unused to (or maybe that I had simply ignored when I went through the first time). When I spoke with my cousin, who had lived in Beirut for the past three years, she told me that while it was true that people continued living their daily lives, everyone was also just waiting for something bad to happen. It wasn’t a matter of “if,” but rather “when.” But life goes on, and people adjust accordingly.
The nature of my work guarantees that I’ll be traveling to/from Lebanon and Jordan again, and insh’allah (God Willing), Syria once the war ends. From 2011 to 2017, I’ve watched some of the oldest cities in the world be reduced to nothing more than sand, and it’s been sobering to see cities and neighborhoods I explored featured in daily headlines. I can’t help but wonder if the people I met in Damascus are still there or if they had joined the ever-increasing statistic of displaced persons, or worse. One day, and hopefully soon, I’d like to retrace my old path, even if the cities I have such fond memories of no longer exist.