DAMASCUS, Syria. October 2007. PICTURED: The busy Al-Nasser street in downtown Damascus, minarets and all.
Ahlan wa-sahlan – Welcome to Syria أهلاً وسهلان
“Ahlan wa-sahlan,” was the first sentence I heard having just landed at Damascus Airport. The second one was “welcome to Syria”, said by Mohammad, the Syrian guide that was waiting for me.
Thanks to my clumsy attempt at a first impression, the initial embarrassment faded away, “Ana Alessandra, wa anta?” — a simple bit of small talk was, in fact, the magic spell that put the two of us at ease. Thirty minutes later, through an adventurous ride with a local cab, we arrived in Damascus, safe and sound.
“Yashkuru allahu,” Mohammad said, “thanks to God,” I repeated.
In front of Bab Sharqi, the Gate of the Sun, words didn’t come out. It was impossible to describe the beauty of this ancient door and the Christian quarter surrounding it.
I was in Syria and the Old City seemed to say “Ahlan wa Sahlan, Alessandra, welcome to Syria”.
Damascus – Kifak inta? كيفك انت
My Syrian adventure began in October 2007 at Damascus Airport, and for five months continued on in one of the most attractive, charming, and magnetic place I ever been, Bab Touma.
Bab Touma (the Gate of Thomas) was a perfect place to live in, thanks to its vibrant and warm neighborhood.
There, people sat outside their home till late chatting about life, a common Arab TV drama Musalsalat and price increases, while kids were playing on the street smiling.
I really loved getting lost in the maze of the narrow cobbled streets, where low and decadent buildings merged together with the mosques, minarets, madrasas and christian churches.
Kifak inta?, a big band piece by one of the most talented vocalists of the Arab world, Fayruz, has for months been the perfect soundtrack for my damascene walks.
Do you remember the last time I saw you that year
Do you remember then the last word you said
And I didn’t see you after
And now I see you
How are you?
The scent of the fresh and crusty khubz (bread) straight from the oven, the Holy Mass at Saint Ananias’s Church, the Muezzin’s call to prayer, the Omayyad Mosque covered by snow, the unruly traffic in central Damascus, all those things, made my journey incredibly special.
Not so far from Damascus, there was a village perched on a rugged mountainside, where Jesus Christ’s words could be perceived, Ma’loula ܡܥܠܘܠܐ. That character is not Arabic, but rather something older.
Built on the eastern slopes of Qalamoun Mountains, Ma’loula, thanks to its yellow stone and silvery-blue-painted homes, grottos, and monasteries, sent visitors back in time; an evocative place, and one of two where the Aramaic language is still spoken.
Walking through the gorge along “The Lord’s Path,” as called by locals, one could see and visit Saint’s Thecla Convent, a sacred landmark for all of the Cristian Community. Carved into the rocks, the Monastery, with its sanctuary, relics and the holy water dripping from the vault, is an important pilgrimage destination for both Christians and Muslims believers (faithful).
On the opposite side, nested on the top of the mountain, the Sanctuary of Serge’s and Bacchus dominated the village.
There, Katia our valuable and intense touristic guide, recited for us the Pater Noster Prayer, as Jesus Christ used to do with his Apostles, in the language in which he supposedly did it it, Aramaic.
A profound and touching moment — also for a non-believer as I was.
Bye Bye Syria – Mahasalm مع السلامة
It’s hard to describe the emotions I experienced in Syria, the energy and the sense of belonging I perceived for a country that wasn’t mine, the undying gratitude I felt for a people that welcomed me with love and kindness.
So few lines are not enough to narrate five months of an intense journey, or likewise describe places I visited and people I met.
How can I describe the taste of Shawarma, the scent of the bubble pipes, the sweet Abu Haitham’s voice, Ayman and Anita’s laughs, the sunset in the old city of Ebla, the Apamea’s columns, Palmyra or simply the sing-song intonation of the Damascus jargon?
Certainly, I can explain how I feel whenever a bomb destroys a church, a mosque, a street, or worse, kills a human being.
At that moment, a sense of anger and helplessness assailed me, because I cannot protect or save all those people there. However, I can share my experience, in the hope that one day, someone could look at Syria as a country not only a war.
Mahasalm مع السلامة
Dedicated to the Syrian people