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Originally published March 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 24, 2008 at 10:37 AM

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A week in Damascus, Syria

Damascus, Syria, is, at once, a place of fear, beauty, kindness and different values for a visitor from the West who wishes to spend some time in this ancient city.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Editor's note: Reporter Haley Edwards wrote these vignettes during a short stay in Damascus this winter.

I have to admit that before I came to Syria, I was afraid of the place. All I knew about it was what I had read beneath newspaper headlines: Terrorist cells. Hezbollah. Car bombs. Unsanctioned nuclear power sites. Mysterious Israeli bombings in the middle the night. The attack on the U.S. Embassy with two truckloads of explosives.

It all sounded terrifying.

So when I arrived in the Damascus Airport — a small cement affair, no bigger than a Queen Anne Craftsman — I was ready for the worst. I pulled on a sweater and a scarf, and headed to the tiny customs kiosk. I was the only person in line under the placard that read "Foreign Visas."

The man behind the counter gave me the once-over. When I handed him my passport, he looked incredulous.

American? By yourself? he asked.

I nodded and smiled. I have never felt so blonde in my life.

He waited a beat, maybe two. Then he smiled.

Welcome to Syria! he said. Welcome, welcome!

•   •   •

Spider Man meet Paul of Tarsus

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I spent the day walking around the Old City with a few old friends, two of whom are here studying Arabic. First stop, the Souq al-Hamidiyya — a wonderful 2000-year-old marketplace, with a vaulted black roof that has been punctured by rocks (or just the passage of time?) so that the sunlight streams through in pinhole shafts.

Kids play in the center of the walkway, wearing Spider-Man T-shirts (Marvel Comics has no borders) and setting off fist-sized toy helicopters propelled by rubber balloons. When they're released, they scream twenty, thirty feet into the air, squealing all the way, until they exhaust themselves, and fall back to the walkway where the kids pounce on them like bird dogs.

A few blocks south of here, there's a street called Medhat Pasha — or, "the street called Straight," as it's named in the Bible. It is the actual Road to Damascus. It's where the Christian-killing Saul of Tarsus was said to be blinded by God's light, converted to Christianity, and then healed by a man named Ananias (Acts 9:10-19), whose house is a few blocks away from here.

•   •   •

Time is measured in empires

Over the last 5000 years, the land that is now Syria has played host to a parade of people — the Phoenicians, the Israelites, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Nabataeans, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the French, to name but a few. And at one point or another, they all had tea in Damascus. If only these walls could talk ...

When Mark Twain visited here in the 1860s, he wrote: "Damascus measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality."

It's true: To Damascus, the Roman Empire — or the Ottoman, or the British, for that matter — was a Sunday matinee. Went down easy with a Caesar-size popcorn and Coke.

The centuries — the millennia — really do tangle up here, messy and beautiful and overwhelming. On our walk home, we passed a fluorescently-lit Internet cafe that's butted up against a thirteenth-century citadel. Behind them both, the four-year-old Four Seasons Hotel, glimmering white and oh-so-Western, looms above the mostly two-storey city. A snake of roiling, coughing traffic coils around its base, cinching in on its valet parking lot, as if encircling its prey.

•   •   •

When values collide

We spent the next afternoon sitting beside a tinkling fountain in the courtyard of a 200-year-old Islamic merchant's home, sipping mint-lemonade, eating stuffed eggplant ("al-khawali") and walnut pastries and taking pulls of sweet tobacco from a bubbling narghile. Not a bad way to spend a day.

I also got into a long discussion with a friend about the problem of imposing Western values on a non-Western nation. Is it ever ok? What about when human rights are being abused? Is respecting a woman's life a "Western" value, or is it innate? Are there "innate" rights at all, or are they all just ascribed by cultures and governments? Was Shakespeare onto something when he wrote that "There is nothing either good or bad, thinking makes it so"?

Less abstractly: We all talk about respecting other cultures' beliefs. But at what point do you simply stop respecting a culture whose beliefs you find to be not only wrong, but downright repugnant?

And at what point is respecting that culture superfluous? Is it enough to be simply tolerant? To turn a blind eye?

Oh, man. I don't have answers to any of those questions, but so long as someone kept that stuffed eggplant comin', I could discuss them forever ...

•   •   •

This city is a shrine to its president, Bashar al-Assad

Paul Theroux wrote in "The Pillars of Hercules" that "any country which displays more than one statue of a living politician is a country which is headed for trouble."

If that's true, Syria's in a world of hurt. Damascus is a shrine to the president, Bashar al-Assad, his father (ex-President Hafez al-Assad), and his brother (who was supposed to be president before he was killed in a car crash a decade ago).

The place is papered with posters and billboards, each showing al-Assad striking a different pose. Sometimes he's smiling, sometimes he's looking stern. Sometimes he's wearing enormous aviators a la Hawaii 5-0.

There's even an al-Assad decal you can get for the window of your pick-up truck, which shows only his aviator-clad silhouette. I know what Dad's gettin' for Christmas ...

•   •   •

Fettah, a flat screen and housing problems

Tonight we went out to dinner at a place called Bosajeti with our friend Mohammed — a 32-year-old Syrian who's lived in Damascus his whole life. He insisted that we order fettah, which is basically liquidy hummus mixed with yogurt and vegetables, which you're supposed to eat with a spoon. The Middle Eastern version of grits. Except completely delicious.

Bosajeti is a pretty Western joint. There's a flat screen TV in the back of the restaurant playing Arabic music videos, one of which, a friend pointed out, was the Syrian answer to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love." Awesome.

At dinner, I learn that one of the reasons Mohammed can't get married is because he can't afford to buy a house. He says a father would never give his daughter to man who couldn't afford to put a roof over her head. (Renting is, evidently, out of the question).

That's one of the reasons the massive influx of Iraqi refugees over the last five years has been such a problem here. The Iraqis have moved into the available houses, driven up prices and, with no malicious intent, aced-out folks like Mohammed.

Mohammed, 32, works full-time for a technology company and makes about $200 a month.

•   •   •

This means stop, this means no

Traveling to a new country means not only learning a new language, but learning a new set of interactions. Gestures mean different things here than they do in America. Here's a quick cheat-sheet:

The hand-signal for "wait" or "stop" is not, as we'd expect, holding up your palm. Here, you put all your fingers together, including your thumb, as if holding the base of a flower, with your palm facing toward you. This is an extremely helpful little gesture when you're about to be run over.

In Syria, raising your eyebrows does not connote "surprise." It means "no." Clicking your tongue means the same thing.

There are two words in the Damascene dialect of Arabic that I absolutely love. The first is "mumkin." It means "maybe." The second is "yumkin." It means "maybe ... but probably not."

•   •   •

At the City of Palms

In the desert northeast of Damascus, a green highway sign mangled by wind is the only thing taller than five-feet for as far as I can see. It points the way down dusty gray ribbons of asphalt that tumble toward Baghdad, toward Mesopotamia, toward nothing at all.

Up ahead, there's Palmyra ("Tador") — an ancient trading post, hewed from honey-colored stones 2000 years ago. Men in Palestinian headscarves weave on motorcycles through the ruined temple, the baths and the colonnaded promenade, whooping and laughing and hawking travel guides to a handful of tourists. A Crusader's castle — a mere 800 years old — stands in silhouette on a ragged hillside nearby.

It's in this little desert outpost — "The City of Palms" — that the gorgeous Queen Zenobia, a descendant of Cleopatra, led her marauding army against the Roman Empire in the third century A.D. When the Roman army crushed her forces, she fled on camelback through the desert and was eventually captured at the Euphrates, bound with chains of 14-karat gold and brought back to Rome, where the Roman emperor Aurelian fell madly in love with her. Or so the legend goes ...

•   •   •

Wearing my head scarf and not being afraid

I've been wearing a head scarf in the countryside and in mosques, and where it seems especially conservative, but in Damascus, there's a large enough population of Christians (who go unveiled) and Western-leaning Muslims that it doesn't feel weird to ditch the hijab. In certain neighborhoods, you'll even see Syrian women wearing jeans, heeled boots and flipping the bright-blond highlights in their hair.

On a related note, I mentioned that I'd been afraid to come here. It's funny because when you're actually here, it doesn't feel unsafe at all.

The parts of Syria that are the most dangerous have nothing to do with terrorism or the threat of nuclear weapons sites. It has everything to do with the fact that this is a very poor developing nation with very little in the way of infrastructure. You're more likely to die getting hit by a car (there are no lanes; no regard for traffic rules), or stumbling into an unmarked manhole, or being eaten alive by a feral dog, than anything else.

•   •   •

Flying's a 'Sham'

The first privately-owned international airline in Syria took its first flight on Jan. 31. The airline will fly directly from Damascus, which is known by its denizens as "Sham," or "North" in Arabic, to Baghdad. The name of the airline? "Sham Wings."

Where was the marketing director on that one?

•   •   •

"There are 'spiders' everywhere"

Syria is technically the Socialist Republic of Syria, but it's run with an iron fist by the authoritarian Socialist Ba-athist Party. Elections here are farcical. Just the other day, we read about student dissidents being rounded up by secret police. They vanished in an afternoon.

The government spies on its citizens (and visiting foreigners, according to the U.S. State Dept., and lore on the street), taps phone and monitors e-mail.

As a result, people are terrified to talk about politics, but hungry for reform. In a very Western-leaning little cafe, I had the chance to speak to a couple of business students, Besim and Omar, both in their early-20s.

They said 90-percent of their graduating class will leave Syria because there's no opportunity for them here. It's too corrupt.

"There are spiders here, everywhere," Omar said in a near whisper, glancing around the cafe. "They have their legs in everything."

•   •   •

A must-see — if you can take the heat: The Panoramic Museum

The Panoramic Museum isn't listed in any of the guidebooks, but it's a must-see tourist stop. It's a memorial to the 1973 war between the pan-Arab powers and — according to the guide — "the Zionist Enemy who was committing acts of aggression against us." The memorial is a two-story, rotating, hand-painted panoramic mural of violent war scenes in the Golan Heights in 1973.

It was constructed and painted by the North Koreans as a gift to the Syrian government.

The anti-Israel bent here is pretty fierce, as you might expect, but if you can take the heat, it's well worth the experience, if only to see how differently our nations understand the events of history.

•   •   •

A castle from the Crusades

We hopped on a public bus again today and headed north toward the Mediterranean Sea. Up here, the landscape begins to get greener, but a cracked, ancient kind of green. It looks a lot like Greece.

At the end of an impossibly windy hill, there's one of the most famous Crusader castles in the world: The Krak des Chevaliers ("Qala'at al-Hosn"). T.E. Lawrence called it the "finest castle in the world" and I'd have to agree.

It has two outer walls, both made of sloping stones the color of custard, a mess hall, a two-story jail, a kitchen the size of a firehouse, in-house latrines, stables, a chapel that's now a mosque, and an intricate system of corridors used by armored knights when the castle was under siege. And it's all almost perfectly preserved.

There's something about this place that lights up the imagination. Maybe it's because after its erection in the mid-12th century, it housed 2000 knights and their horses. Maybe it's because after 120 years of almost-constant attacks by Beybars, its walls were never breached. The knights ended up abandoning it in exchange for safe passage in 1271, when the Crusades were almost over anyway.

Regardless of the reason, my three friends and I spent the afternoon stalking the corridors, admiring the intricate stone work and, not a few times, pretending to dump gallons of scalding oil on make-believe intruders, the hoofs of their horses we could almost hear thundering up to the gate.

•   •   •

As always, it's the people

Have I mentioned the doughnuts in Syria? Think: Krispy Cream dipped in glazed chocolate, all wrapped in kisses from the gods of delicious, grease-soaked foods. I've been here for a week now, and I think I've eaten twelve.

Getting on the airplane today was bittersweet. I'm not going to miss the freezing cold desert air, or the fact that Syrian bus drivers can't drive in the snow, or the bloody goat carcasses that swing into the street in the crowded markets when you pass by.

But I am going to miss the people I've met here. Abir and her beautiful, rambunctious children. Omar, his wife and his gorgeous new baby boy, Adam. Mohammad, who treated me with such kindness. Besim and the other Omar and all the rest.

I'd like to thank all of them, from the bottom of my heart, for treating this wandering American girl with the respect and kindness I only hope I'd have the dignity and patience to offer them in return, had they wandered into my town, confused and lost and desperately in need of sweet tea and doughnuts.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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