There are so many “hot spots” around the world that tourists are frightened to visit, such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and even Israel. Visas are also not easy for Americans to obtain. While all of these countries have unique sites of special interest for me, my mother didn’t raise me to travel to countries without careful thought. If there is no active conflict occurring, it may be a fortuitous time window to visit these areas. I take State Department warnings with a grain of salt and consider all factors. Sometimes, warnings are more of a political nature. Given their wealth of archeological treasures, Syria and Libya were high on my list of places to visit. With the blossoming of the Arab Spring uprisings, both countries are not a place to visit now, but I was able to get into Syria before that occurrence. I am disappointed I didn’t get to Libya, too.
It always amazes me how cheap transportation can be in these emerging countries. It cost me $10 for a taxi from my hotel in Beirut, Lebanon to the bus station, but bus fare from Beirut to Damascus, Syria was only $11 compared to $125 by private taxi. Fortunately, there is a system of sharing a new SUV as a taxi with four other passengers that cost $20 for the two-and-a-half-hour ride. Another advantage to using this system is that the visa check at the border is rapid, whereas I have heard it can take anywhere from two to 10 hours to check every passenger on a bus.
I couch surfed with a student studying for a master’s degree in nuclear physics in Damascus. He was subletting two rooms to an American and a German student who were studying Arabic. I would have to describe the location as being in the “slums,” but I felt no sense of danger and the area was relatively well kept for a poor neighborhood. Ali was a generous host and made breakfasts and dinner. He liked to have long conversations in the evenings. I did too, but wondered when he had time to study.
I asked his feelings about the young Syrian president and he said everyone was hopeful that major changes would occur, but he blamed the fact that this did not happen on the people left over from the old regime, who he felt were wielding the real power. However, with the outbreak of violence and the government killing its own people with the president’s approval, I doubt these feelings of forgiveness toward President Bashar Assad still exist. The anger is boiling and it is only a matter of time before the pot will explode and the government will be overthrown. Syria is a secular society and merchants in the larger cities are relatively well off. The people who aren’t participating in the demonstrations are afraid of the consequences if the present regime is gone and possible civil war ensues but history shows this not to be the case.
If a new leader is to emerge, he will have to convince the majority that life can be much better under a democratic regime and that the dominant 74 percent Sunni Muslims will not attack the 13 percent Shia Muslims (Alawites are a branch of Shia and to which the president and those in positions of power belong), the 10 percent Christians and three percent Druzes.
Damascus has always had a magical ring to its name for me. I remember being in Jerusalem and standing at the Damascus Gate where the road to that city begins. Many parts of the Old City of Damascus transport one back to before the time of Christ. It is the capital of Syria with more than two and a half million people and is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world. It is second to Aleppo in size among Syrian cities. Some say the meaning of the word “Damascus” was from the Greeks and alluded to a well-watered place.
Among the many attractions in Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque has to rank near the top. It is one of the oldest with beautiful architecture. It also contains the head of John the Baptist, who is revered by Muslims and Christians. Syria has many religions and is a secular country. There was even a Jewish quarter, but since the birth of Israel, many Jews have emigrated. A small population of Jews still exists and there is a synagogue.
Throughout Syria, people would ask me where I was from, and I replied I was an American. Everyone said, “Welcome to Syria” and couldn’t have been more hospitable, thus showing again that its not the people, but the governments of countries that are the problems. I did encounter one gentleman who asked if I was of Japanese descent and after an affirmative reply, he said how nice Japanese people were. While he scorned Koreans, I wondered if he said the same about Japanese or Chinese to Koreans he met. Once when I asked someone where I could buy some socks, he personally led me two blocks to a store.
Nearby the mosque is the tomb of Saladin, a fascinating Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders and whose chivalry won the admiration of even Richard the Lion Hearted. Al Azem Palace is also close by and depicts how life was lived in ancient Syria. The huge souk (market) adjoins these places and it is fascinating to wander its walkways observing merchants and shoppers.
There are signs indicating tourist routes throughout the city, such as the Traditional Souqs route, the Classical route with illustrations of Greek and Roman influences, handicrafts route, Old Damascus Highlights or “Integrated” route (best over-all if you choose one route), and Essential Old Damascus route.
The Citadel built upon an ancient fort is also worthy of a visit, but the Citadel in the town of Aleppo is more impressive. The last place not to miss is the National Archaeological Museum, which contains a reassembled synagogue, clay tablets with the oldest alphabet, and rooms with jewelry, pottery, coins, and armor, among other treasures.
Las Vegas Tidbits
Before gambling in Lost Wages (errhh…Las Vegas) think about this anagram: SLOT MACHINES:
When you rearrange the letters: CASH LOST IN ME.
Did you know that the sum of numbers on a roulette wheel is 666?
The Kaeru Kid lives in Las Vegas and hopes readers will send him comments at KaeruKid@yahoo.com. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.