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June 6, 2009

The Kindness of Strangers—لطف الغرباء

Filed under: Touring — Tags: , , — admin @ 11:37 am

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If ever there were a place that deserved to have this as their motto, Syria would be it. In the three days Elaina and I spent bike touring between Aleppo and Jisr ash-Shughur, we were constantly offered to share tea, eat food and stay the night. Even at grocery stores, we found it difficult, if not impossible, to exchange money for food or drinks. The country has so far lived up to its reputation for incredible hospitality, and that in spades. While this almost overwhelming hospitality, in combination with some pretty significant mid-day heat, has slowed down our forward progress, we have been able to travel in comfort, with most of our needs in terms of food, water, hygiene and rest generously taken care of for us.

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We set out from Aleppo a bit late the first day, as I had neglected to set an alarm. It was about 8:30am when we left the place we were sleeping, and then we spent about 2 hours at the internet cafe. The weather was already starting to get pretty hot. We left town more-or-less following the river and the railroad tracks out of town, a path that took us past a long strip of stone-mason workshops, where we saw young guys covered from head to toe with stone dust, without wearing masks, leading us both to wonder how long they could go before silicosis took hold.

After passing the waste-treatment plant, we soon found ourselves out in the middle of open pastures, and we made our way over picturesque (you’ll have to take my word for it, as I took no pictures) rolling hills where the occassional taxi and tractor would compete for space on the narrow road. We took a little break under a water tower, then continued on through a village and across the major Aleppo-Damascus highway. The proper path then became much less obvious, and the path I had plotted on Google Earth seemed to have disappeared and we wound through agricultural fields on dirt tracks, turning down offers for water along the way. We eventually reached the railroad tracks that run between Aleppo and Lattakia and followed them for some distance along another dirt/gravel/straw track. At one point, a freight train rolled past and the engineer gestured out the window in such a way as to suggest, “what the hell are you doing here!?”. We reached an intersection at a grove of olive trees, where we took a rest under the shade for a bit until a guy on a motorcycle rolled by and invited us in an easy, welcoming, no-strings-attached kind of way to tea at his shack a little bit down the road.

We followed him to his spartan two-room tin-roofed shack and shared a thermos of hot sweet tea that he had prepared. I had some difficulty following his Arabic, particularly those very important but regionally-peculiar social niceties that smooth these sorts of interactions. We nevertheless had some interesting conversations about the beauty of the countryside, agricultural policy (the cigarettes he was smoking, though they were branded to look similar to Marlboros, were produced, like practically all major agricultural goods here, in Syria), and the tendency of Egyptians to take advantage of visitors. I was a bit surprised to find that it wasn’t just white tourists that Egyptians treat this way (that is, as a potential source of income), but that they take the same attitude with Arab visitors, tourists and workers alike. It is a gross generalization of course, but the contrast has been striking.

After the thermos was emptied, we declined his offers for food and insisted that we weren’t hungry and that we should carry on down the road, whereupon he gave us directions to a nearby asphalt road that would take us to the large nearby town of Idleb.

Carry on we did, climbing a bit of a hill up to the next village. Near the far end of the village, we decided to stop at a grocer to pick up some bread and a drink. The kid staffing the place was excited to practice some English and offered to get us some bread from his house, as the store didn’t sell any and there was no bakery in the village. We were unable to decline this kind offer. As he went to fetch some bread, `Abd as-Sitar, the fellow on the motorcycle, rolled by and scolded us for stopping to buy some food when we had just told him that we weren’t hungry. Thus insued a bit of a competition between the local crowd that had by now gathered at the little shop and `Abd as-Sitar over who would have the honor of welcoming these traveling American weirdo freaks into their homes. Having established a bit of a relationship with the latter, we attempted to settle accounts at the shop, where they charged a small amount for a drink and refused payment for the bread. `Abd as-Sitar later seemed perturbed that they had charged us for anything.

So, we followed `Abd as-Sitar to the next village, where he lives, as he rode his motorcycle about as far ahead as possible without us losing sight of him. Again, a marked contrast to my experience in Egypt, where such offers of hospitality are more likely to be accompanied by urgent tugging at the elbow and a heart-wrenching story about a sisters’ wedding or son’s illness before the sales pitch.

We parked our bikes and were shown the bathroom, introduced to `Abd as-Sitar’s wife Salwa and kids, and asked if we wanted to wash up. He insisted that I change into some pajamas and a jalabeya for comfort, then put a kufeya on my head for fun. He told me to go into the sitting room and announce “Salam wa`aleykum” as if I were a sheikh. I dutifully obeyed, to the delight of Salwa, who snapped a few pictures of me with her camera phone (at a somewhat uncomfortably close distance, I should add).

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For the next several hours, we were presented with food, tea, coffee and numerous invitations to stay the night while waves of visitors came over to meet the distinguished guests. Eventually, we succombed to the invitations to stay. Elaina and Salwa hit it off grandly and she was given a tour of all the neighbors’ households, during which time she took the time to hone her pantomiming skills and bolster her tolerance for weak sweet tea.

I meanwhile struggled to carry on conversation with `Abd as-Sitar, his 17-year-old son and his mother, and eventually was invited to take a nap when they noticed my sinking energy level. I was awoken for dinner, and after that and some more pleasant conversation with the extended family and family friends, we turned in for bed.

We woke up somewhat early the next morning, whereupon we were presented with another meal and more tea and coffee. Our bikes, which `Abd as-Sitar and his son had kindly relocated to the garage the previous afternoon (as a precaution against thievery, which it was difficult for me to accept as a problem here), were brought out and we were given fresh water for all of our water vessels. A long, somewhat painful–and even tearful–parting ensued before we got on our way, with neighbors coming out to see us off.

June 1 [gpxinterval=2]

Difficult as it was to leave such social warmth, I was also somewhat relieved to be alone and able to engross myself in something familiar–cycling and navigation.

We had already deviated substantially from the route I had previously planned, so we stayed on the main road and passed through the large town of Idleb as well as a number of smaller villages, most of whose boundaries were marked by triumphalist arches across the main road, declaring “Yes to Bashar” and glorifying Syria’s armed forces and the Arab struggle. Staying on the main road made navigation easier, but I did have to stop once and look at a map, and ask directions once in Idleb. Along the way, we of course were the subject of plenty of prolonged gazes, but people were incredibly polite and friendly wherever we rolled through, and I never experienced the pointing, laughing and jeering that I came to expect most places I cycled in Egypt. In fact, every passing day in Syria has made Egypt seem worse and caused me to rue the time I spent there when I could have been in Syria.

In any case, after Idleb, we passed over a series of hills and took a detour to the north, following the signs pointing to Harem and the microbuses taking people to Salqin. This route took us through a narrow valley that initially showed us impressive rock cliffs on the right, before the valley widened out a bit. We had a lunch of cheap sandwiches and sodas in the town of Armanaaz, passing olive presses, pottery workshops and glassworks on the way. After Armanaaz, I turned my wheel around to get into an easier gear for the upcoming climb to Kafr Takharin and Salqin. The latter was pretty difficult, especially as the heat of the day wore on, and we eventually resolved to spend the rest of the hot hours resting beneath the branches of a fig tree adjacent to an olive grove.

Just as Elaina was starting to settle in with her sleeping pad, Muhammad, the owner of the property across the street, approached and insisted that we follow him to his place to rest a bit. Elaina went straight to sleep, but I felt obliged to stay awake a bit to engage in the social niceties. I spoke for some time with Muhammad about the usual subjects: work and family, but his farm provided more interesting (and tastier) material. He works as an accountant, but he is also an agriculturalist, and raises various fruit trees on his property, among them lemons, grapefruit, walnuts, kumkwats, apricots and a type of fruit common here, the name of which I seem incapable of remembering. It’s often served with cherries and is about the same shape, though it’s larger and green, with the texture of an apple and quite tart. Of course, he also grows olives. He gave us samples of most of these fruits, and his olive oil, as well, which he pressed himself. In addition to his speech, which was easy for me to understand, as well as his ownership of some prime real estate near the top of a hill looking out toward Turkey, the fact that he pressed his own oil was a marker of his social class. Most people out this way, though they have olive trees and cure their own olives, have them pressed at a central community press in one of the larger towns or cities.

I had originally written a bit more than once again as much as you’ve just read, but my little electronic typing device decided to crash and take all of that with it. I don’t have the time or energy to rewrite all that, so I’ll switch gears and do a bit of summarization.

To continue with the overriding theme of these few days, I found it interesting to note the similarities and differences between all the “random acts of kindness” we experienced. There was the extremely warm hospitality of the `Abd as-Sitar family from the agricultural hinterlands, the easy hospitality and more refined discourse of an upper-middle-class white-collar worker, fulfilling his agrarian dreams in the mountains. There was the persistent hospitality of the shopkeeper in Darkush who repeatedly refused our money and, when asked if there were a hotel in town, responded, “our house is your hotel.” His customer, Ahmed Hilal, amplified that sentiment and we experienced the uncomfortable hospitality of a family clearly coping with some internal strife, with a breadwinner trying to support two families (and two wives) on the income of a microbus driver, selling off the 14-year-old hair-dressing daughter to an unknown Qatari for marriage, the kids constantly hitting one-another and the father playing favorites with his youngest, 4-year-old son, allowing him to puff on his cigarettes and throw the butts in the adjacent river (particularly galling in Darkush, arguably the most scenic part of the Orontes River).

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We also fell under the hospitality of a Catholic tractor driver who gave us a ride up a steep hill after I inquired about the existence of a shortcut around it. He and his brothers were mostly busy at work in the tractor shop, but nevertheless made time out to welcome us for tea and to share their pride in their Catholic community of Qanayah. It was their hospitality that put us in closer contact with a group of people we would never have had anything to do with in the US, even as traveling weirdo-freaks. The hospitality of the workers in the Jisr ash-Shughur train station was perhaps most telling, as they immediately invited us to drink water and soda, smoke shisha and take a nap on their mat before any mention of trains, schedules or tickets was made. The staff at the San Jose Amtrak station could stand to take a few tips from these folks. They were even kind enough to allow us to leave our bikes in the station while we went to Damascus to visit with Adrienne.

I’ve spoken in my previous post about the hospitality of the Couch Surfing(tm) crowd in Aleppo, but it bears repeating, as during our layover in Aleppo, our host Jameel, who appears everywhere somehow, saw us on our way back to the train station and took time out from his various other social obligations to say hi/bye.


While the kindness of the people was the highlight of our trip so far, the non-human environment we traveled through was no less striking, with clean air everywhere, even (relatively speaking) in the cities. Vibrant, small-scale organic agriculture was the norm everywhere we went and unlike in so many other places, it seemed entirely congruent with non-agricultural open space. The empty road out of Darkush along the Orontes River was particularly beautiful. In Damascus, the architecture of the Old City is amazing, with narrow alleys (assiduously cleaned by public workers), encroached upon by buildings leaning into the lanes under sagging ancient timbers.

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In general, my stay in Damascus has been good for getting me out of the mindset of a tourist (the shopping trips notwithstanding), owing to the political activism of our host, Mayssun. The conversations have given me the impetus to do something more with what I learn in Syria. I’m still not sure what I will have learned here, but I know that I’m not content with the standard liberal project of simply telling stories to contradict prevailing American preconceptions of the Arab world as a burgeoning population of hysterical, anti-American (people) savages. I’m fairly certain my blog isn’t being read by the people who need to hear that message, and I’m not interested in “speaking truth to power.” As Adrienne is keen to point out, “power doesn’t give a shit about truth,” it cares about power and maintaining it. I think my project here will only become clear in retrospect.


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