Connecting to Spirituality and Resilience – a Travelogue to Syria.

Disclaimer: If I get any ‘facts’ wrong, just let me know. This was all a learning and experiential process.

I get quite emotional thinking about Syria. It is quite possible one of the prettiest places I ever been in a really subtle, modest and quiet way. There are pockets of small mountains, salt lakes, and green valleys breaming with little fairy-tale like villages from afar. Above and beyond that, the people are so genuinely, almost brutally kind that it is just so overwhelming. I had so many highs and lows here that I almost felt like I was going through a manic-depressive episode. I probably was, but you know, when you are out of your surroundings, you never quite know. I learn so much from travelling, but after these few weeks in Iraq and now Syria, I feel like my head is spinning from all the stories I have heard, and encounters I have made. It is incredibly exhilarating at one end, and emotionally gutting at the other. But, I think this is all part of stepping outside of my comfort zone. My brain, heart and spirit are literally being shocked, and to me, that’s a good thing.

And so, where do I start with Syria?

From the very moment the car passed over the border from Lebanon to Syria, it was really hard to fathom that a war had taken place (and was still taking place, as there is still literal danger in areas in Idlib and surrounding areas; follow the White Helmets for real-time humanity stories, etc). Even as we were pulling into Damascus, you could just feel a buzz in the air. The city was moving at a hundred kilometres an hour as the citizens scurried about carrying out their daily routines. The traffic however was horrendous, and at points, was at a standstill.  The cars just did not feel like they were going to move no matter how aggressive our driver was. I had just been to Iraq, and there was also bad traffic, but it always seemed to move. All that being said, the city just felt really normal. There were no initial signs that a war ever could have taken place, mind you, one that lasted for such a long time (and as aforementioned, is still ongoing). Of course, I had not ventured into the “zones” yet, or seen Aleppo, Homs, or the many abandoned villages. I had yet to see the destruction and carnage. I also had yet to see all the community, spirit, and togetherness that is this country now.

Damascus is this stunningly beautiful city, especially as you get to the old town. There is a mixture of old and new architecture. The old architecture of course shines, and the cement of newer houses just really does not fit in, but is there nonetheless for restorative reasons. The city gives off European vibes, while still keeping Middle Eastern undertones. It is a bright, vibrant and clean city, and you can see all its potential from its glory days before any conflicts ever unfolded. Syria was a well-travelled country at one point, without checkpoints and extensive processes to get around all its regions. Tour groups and backpackers travelled well throughout the country all the same. But, the war changed that. That being said, as it begins to open up again, you can see that it has all the right pieces in place to take the world’s stage again. If you are not in Idlib countryside, it is not a war zone. The war ended pretty much in 2017, and the last few years have been spent in recuperation and restoration.

So, at least in the old city of Damascus, you can see workers picking up garbage throughout each of the little twisted alleyways (the rest of the country needs help though a bit with garbage). Everyone can speak at least a few words of English, and even when I tried my three trusted phrases of Arabic, I always received an English reply in return. With my group, I was deemed their “122nd” tourist to enter Syria since the war started to die down and the country began to open again.

I loved walking through old Damascus myself through the winding seemingly un-ending alleyways. It felt incredibly safe – everywhere I went felt incredibly safe. I never had one pat-down, and once again, as I noted with my writings about Iraq, I have now become a bit desensitized to rifles and the military.

So, back to Damascus – the city has this romantic charm, and once again the intermixing of religious cultures – there is a Catholic church in one place, Orthodox church in another place, and yet a Mosque right in the middle of the big souk. There feels like a lot of religious tolerance. As you walk the streets, you can see the strain in some of the shopkeepers’ eyes. They look tired, but that does not stop them from saying “hello” and “welcome”. They are and were using to seeing foreigners, so there is not that small instinctual fear to ‘hide’ a foreigner like in Iraq. I felt very safe walking for a few hours through the old city as a lone female traveller. In the warm summer weather, it was just perfect. As noted, it almost felt like I was in Europe.

My second day in, I felt emotionally strained, and after the first time after my high of leaving Iraq, I felt the effects of feeling lonely and withdrawn again. And, this was not at all attributed to the trip, but just feeling incredibly disconnected again to my life and relationships at home. I had a long conversation with some younger Syrians about just how connective and protective family life and structure is in Syria, and well generally, the Middle East. The conversation kind of brought me back to my perceptions and observations from Iraq. All these people are able to rally together in difficult times – whether they are blood relatives, or just friends and neighbours, because they have created a strong support structure for and with each other. Example – back home, in my ‘structure’, I can safely say that most people do not know their neighbours. It was brought up here that most people know their neighbours, and the relatives of their neighbours, so they are one huge community looking out for each other, whether or not they have experienced the same trauma. They talk to each other every single day (or at least every few days; there’s no – “I will see you next month, or in the next few months”) despite having families, jobs, health issues and the list goes on. They make time for each other, blood relative or not. So, with that closeness, they can try harder together to withstand the tests of war, death and tragedy because they are so integrated with each other and each other’s lives.

As I thought more and more about it, I have left for a few weeks now, and I almost feel like I have created this scenario where I do not exist anymore, and people seem to be okay with it. It is all too likely because I am not actually this connected with anyone. I could probably just die tomorrow and it would be okay in time. I actually truthfully believe that – right now, I am sure very few people will actually message me until I finally decide to go home (if that), unless I message them first (let the social experiment begin). But here, the mourning just does not go away even as life moves on, because each friend, neighbour, family member was a pivotal piece of this integral structure.

Anyways, one girl noted that when travelling to Europe, she felt that the city lives were really material, and that “material city life kills the soul”. I kind of laughed to myself because that is all home has done for me. It has stomped and crushed my soul over the past few years. This life I have created for myself is inherently flawed for me. I never feel needed by anybody at home in a truly depth-driven way (there’s a difference between that and “let’s hang out and talk” about shallow things), and so I have been suicidal. And the way the Western world frames it, you can shove 500 hundred pills down your throat and that’s supposed to be your support structure. Yes, North America believes in mental health, but you have to pay a bucket load of money to heal. Human connection does not really exist in the Western world the way it does out here, and so if said world exploded tomorrow, I am not so convinced people would be able to rally together in the same way (unless they came from familial structures like those set up in places like the Middle East in the first place).  Back home, we do not know how to be there for each other in a deeper way; maybe its selfishness.

So, as per usual I went on an emotional tirade, but this is all part of the ‘journey’, and I am glad to be having these conversations about what makes someone feel stronger. Everyone keeps on telling me to “find what I am looking for” as if I did not know to do that in the first place. Well, if I were not doing that, would I really still exist – food for thought.

Okay, I really did want to speak more about Syria. Similar to Iraq, I want to point out some interesting observations I made along the way – about what I saw (somewhat less important), the culture I experienced (more important), and the people that I was very privileged to meet and speak with (most important). Once again, I have to re-iterate that you learn so much through travelling, and this is primarily through conversations and connections to people. You can take as many pretty photos as you possibly can, eat lots of great food, but those experiences will never truly twist your brain like a conversation or interaction will. And, well you know, because I need to “find what I am looking for” these conversations are crucial.

I travelled for about two weeks through the country – stopping through Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Lattakia, and Bosra. Along the way, I also saw Maaloula, Krak des Chevaliers, Al-Mashtaya and other villages, Palmyra, and spent some time in the monastery – Mar Musa.

  • Crossing Lebanon into Syria was a relatively pain-free process. I went on a day where the border crossings on both sides were quite empty. On both sides, you fill out a short paper form. Mind you, as a traveller right now, it is highly advised to go with an agency. I went with a French-speaking group called Mithra. I did not want to think about approaching this from a backpacker angle because the country is so fresh out of war (and well, still ongoing). Foreigners essentially have to get approvals from each particular governorate to enter the region to see the specific sites. An agency can coordinate that and the approvals for your visa pretty easily (and, especially if you do not speak Arabic). If you attempt to enter an area without the proper approvals, I am told that you get sent back to the border right away; and, are essentially told to exit (tourists right now can only be in the country for 15 days maximum).
    • Depending on what passport you have, you pay a different visa fee. I paid $90USD (Canadian passport as at Sept 2019).
    • There were two car checkpoints. At the second checkpoint, they check the trunk really quickly; there are no sniffing dogs, and there is no pat down at either checkpoint. The Syrian customs officials were all smiles. It was very relaxed.
    • The drive leading to Damascus is scenic – with fern trees, peaks and valleys, and jagged rocky cliffs. Because it is summer, the grass is all dried up and yellow, but you can kind of imagine how beautiful it would be in spring.
  • I kind of mentioned it above already, but Damascus is beautiful, with a haven of green trees.
  • The country is still experiencing sanctions – no international money transfers, major flights, or major imports or exports (they still do trade with some neighbouring countries – Iraq, Lebanon, etc).
    • The latter point is very tough for citizens who are experiencing major health issues from the war. For example, hospitals are not able to easily access imported equipment needed to help with these issues.
    • Some international embassies are opening up, with more working through opening up as well in the very near-term.
    • Similar to Iraq, income disparity is very high.
    • As at September 2019, the currency exchange was $1USD to 600-650 SYP (I felt the exchange fluctuated a bit with each place I went).
    • The sanctions obviously hurt trade routes, as a number of countries used to communicate with other parts of the world (from a trade respect) via Syria.
    • Citizens are restricted on gasoline. They are allowed 20 litres of gas every two days. Everyone is given a special card to fill gas with limited quantities. There can be a huge wait for gas. Sometimes, people would sleep in line overnight for gas.
  • You can purchase a SIM card with 2GB of internet at any Syriatel shop for about $12-13 (8000 SYP). This lasted me until about the second last day, as some of the wifi in hotels really suffered outside of Damascus.
  • Damascus is considered one of the oldest continually habited cities.
    • Old Damascus used to be so busy with tourists. Many of the businesses are family inherited businesses. I was happy to see that the old city is still very vibrant, and for both days I was there, full of people smiling and laughing just walking care-free through the streets. It is just a very walk able, friendly place.
      • Shell bombing hurt a lot of people, but did not destroy the old city.
    • The older men in the neighbourhood love to play backgammon around sunset. It was really quite endearing.
    • I snacked a lot in the old city (everything below is approximately $1USD or less – 300-600 SYP range). Here were some of my favourites:
      • Basturma– dried cured meat sandwich – I found this in a little hole-in-wall pressed sandwich shop across from The Mushroom Park on Bab Touma Street (north east corner). The name is in Arabic.
      • Just a bit west of Bab Sharqi gate, on the south side, there is a big gelato and dessert restaurant. I had gelato here one night, and Kanafeh (Syrian cheese dessert) the other night. Both were really good. The name is also in Arabic.
      • AlQaimarryeh Croissants– around the corner from Al Shahbandar Palace hotel. They have these ginormous croissants (you see French influence in the cuisine because of the French occupation until the 40s) – cheese and chocolate flavoured. They were so fluffy and warm, and the cheese was salty but delicious. I am tempted to say this was the best croissant I have ever had.
      • Bakdash – You can find milk and pistachio ice cream (booza) inside the Al-Hamidiyah Souq. It is madness trying to get one because of the aggressive crowds, but fairly interesting to try. The ice cream is very thick and gooey – “elastic” some would say.
    • I visited the National Museum– It was beautiful and contemporary, and curates all the interconnections of Arabic, Greek, Roman, Persian civilizations in Syria.
      • It just opened up again last year. Museum management took what little antiquities they could during the shell bombing, and kept them in a safe place as to not be robbed. Other museums are across the country were unfortunately ransacked. The museum is still in a state of restoration and recuperation.
      • As you step into the museum, the first thing you see is a piece of a temple, specifically a monolithic ceiling, from the historic Palmyra. Terrorists bombed this temple, and also destroyed the most well-preserved tombs.
      • One of the relics I found interesting was a tear collector found in various tombs. Apparently, in the olden days, a person would collect tears for a person he / she loved who died. It was just a little vial, but it felt really symbolic for obvious reasons.
    • In the old city, I also visited Al-Hamidiyah Souqand Omayad Mosque. Both were stunning visually. The mosque was very different from other mosques I visited in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan (which were more alike in features, especially with Jame mosques centred in the bazaars / souqs). This mosque had mixed Ottoman and Arabic features, so none of the usual blue, pink and yellow ceramic tiling. It felt more like a church intertwined with a mosque.
  • We started a road trip to Aleppo on the second day. The main highway had been closed for certain stretches for three years because of snipers. Even now, we had to take a back-door route to Aleppo (incurring an extra hour) because the main highway crosses into the last stronghold in the Idlib countryside. Later on in the trip, we would have to take detours again because some roads would still be closed.
  • From here on out (and I will explain later),I am just going to reference the opposition as “OF”. Obviously, there were opposition forces to the Syrian army and government, and terrorist group involvement, so it’s a bit complicated and a little convoluted to group everything together; but, I would rather refer to the opposition as the opposition than repeatedly use ‘terrorists’ and ‘enemies’ every time I am describing what I have heard or read.
  • Every few kilometers there is a checkpoint. During the war, it used be every one kilometre. Obviously, before the war, there were hardly any checkpoints and tourists could travel around freely.
  • We passed by the east Ghouta, just outside of Damascus, which received thousands of shell-bombings. Obviously, it was really difficult to see all the destroyed buildings; anything from houses to businesses. I definitely would not even feel the emotional impact until I walked streets and streets of damaged buildings, and yet see all these children playing amongst these ghost-like neighbourhoods, or the one business that has pulled together to restore and re-open in these eerie, lonely streets.
    • Culminating with that, we talked through some of the stories of other cities that were attacked severely regardless of who they were, and what they believed in (because some OF had a directive to follow and that was it). For example, in the industrial city of Adra, people were shoved into chemical ovens, beheaded or killed in front of their families, or just locked away without food. Some managed to escape to military checkpoints, or make their way back to Damascus.
    • I spoke to a translator who told me a couple of stories where she said she just broke down in tears later because of how much it affected her to hear such things. I could completely understand. One was where families had congregated around a truck containing food that was let into a besieged locked-down area, and the entire area was subsequently bombed.
    • The Syrian aviation army tried to send parachutes with aid down to villages, and these were also bombed.
    • It was clarified that not all people defected from Syria completely (though many did defect; praise all the lovely Syrian businesses that have opened in Toronto – i.e. Zezafoun). People just moved from city to the next city, and from village to the next village.
      • Some refugees posed as Syrians, using fake Syrian passports.
    • All along the road trip, we saw some villages that were abandoned partially due to OF groups using the areas as strategic hiding spots to attack military zones. Some villages even surrounding said villages were abandoned, but we were told people are slowly making their way back. And I mean, I could see this where there were crops being grown, and animals grazing grass. Aside from it being dry season, and there being a lot of yellow, barren land, the drive to Aleppo was stunning with lots of valleys and peaks.
    • I am not going to lie that during this trip, we spoke with people – villagers, nuns, monks, priests who told some stories that just make you feel completely obliterated emotionally. Some of the stories I had read in media in the past (especially about Aleppo), and others were obviously very personal.
      • For example, we visited Maaloula, which is this stunning village where the houses are almost enclosed in mountain crevices (like cave houses). Maaloula also houses the earliest church in the world.
        • OF groups occupied Maaloula for 9 months and a substantial part of the city was destroyed. As we were walking through, several people were restoring buildings. Churches were attacked; nuns tried to stay and hold ground, but some were kidnapped. People were enclosed in their houses, and while some escaped, many also died.
          • OF groups headquartered in a fancier hotel at the top of the mountain overlooking the village. That hotel still remains, but it appeared mostly destroyed.
        • We visited the Church of Saints Sergios and Bacchos before taking this beautiful walk into a canyon leading out into the village below. A number of spiritual icons in the church were destroyed, and so only copies remain.
      • All these communities are working together hand-in-hand to rebuild both physical and emotional structures of society. I did ask a bit about psychosocial programs. The focus here, for children and adults, is to try and forget about the incredibly difficult things they saw – death of family members, bombings of communities, rapings of daughters, sisters, etc. Community-driven and government sponsored programs are being implemented (or have been implemented) to encourage people dealing with trauma to engage in community activities (i.e. music, art, fitness programs).
        • Especially with children, the people do not want their kids to talk about what they saw. They are more of the belief that a “move-on” mentality is necessary. And you know what honestly, if you have an incredibly strong support structure like that, how could you argue against repression? Sometimes, if you talk about something traumatic over and over, it does not necessarily help you heal. I know that first hand, obviously not comparing situations because I could really never know what it feels like to watch my dad getting shot, my home getting blown up, or a friend getting raped (and I am so very privileged in that respect)– the trauma list goes on.
      • Also, along the way, I saw the infamous beehive houses with the dome-shaped roofs. There were some villages with these houses that were active, and some abandoned.
        • OF groups would hide in some villages to attack military zones on the other side, so people had to defect.
      • I visited this monastery called Mar Yakub(a monastery of humanity, unity and tolerance). It was under significant restoration due to bombing. The nun I spoke to was actually closest to the door where the bomb hit, but she survived. Everyone in the monastery survived. She explained “God was on their side”. Upon leaving, one of the monks noted that everyone is invited to come to Syria to their monastery regardless of what they believe in. Syria is a safe, peaceful country, and they are re-building.
    • Pulling into Aleppo, there was a darker vibe. You could see some of the carnage right away, but as the car continued to drive, the city began to brighten up as we approached unaffected or restored areas. Aleppo is a large, sprawling city, and as I would find out the next day, different pockets are still undergoing major recuperation efforts. However, as explained above, it’s a community working together in stride, and with each day, they are building their lives and becoming stronger and more resilient. This is same, well across the country.
    • Most Syrians believe that the conflict within Idlib will be resolved this next year.
    • The Aga Khan Foundation and UNHCR have been helpful in providing humanitarian efforts – whether through assisting with restoration, or providing educational resources for children.
    • At this point in time, the museum and major mosque in Aleppo is undergoing restoration, as is parts of the old city and souk area. So, I walked through some of the old city where I was allowed to go, and I also visited the breathtaking citadel, which re-opened in 2017.
      • During the war, museum management tried to protect the national museum with cement and wood, but right now, it is still closed.
      • Twice OF groups bombed the mosque, but at this point in time it is 70 percent restored.
      • The souk area was completely occupied by OF groups who operated some networks in sewage areas below, setting off powerful explosives in tunnels; or occupied buildings with snipers.
      • Many businesses were robbed and ransacked, and then set on fire. You could see the burnt embers on the ceilings of many alleyways and parallels. It was really chilling.
    • Just walking through the bombed areas in Aleppo sent ripples through me emotionally and mentally. There are some areas that used to be full of hundreds of people, and are now considerably like a ghost town. The civil damage in some affected areas is so apparent, and there are currently large teams of engineers and architects working through scanning the area and figuring out how to re-build the area as it was before. The old city, after all, is the heart of Aleppo’s people, and is what they grew up with and what they know.
      • During the restoration process, a lot of work had to be done to check for any remaining explosives.
    • When you talk to people, you can see the emotion in their eyes. They speak softly and kindly about how it used to be – jewellery shops in this section, handicrafts in this other section. Business owners treat each other like one, big family (i.e. they would speak everyday, have tea breaks, breakfast together in the morning), and for some, they lost family members in the destruction.
      • Some businesses have re-opened. Other businesses are due to re-open in the areas they used to operate out of because of restoration efforts (and in the interim years, have just operated their business elsewhere). The people do what they can to make a living and survive. Some of these businesses will return at the end of the month (with their areas completely restored and rebuilt).
        • One shopkeeper, when asked how long he took to rebuild after the liberation said one month. It was not going to be a year he said, because he had the will to start over immediately as soon as he could. Hearing that was just so incredibly inspirational, and once again, so emotional.
      • I also walked through the Jdaideh quarter, which used to have these beautiful historic houses, and wooden facades. Many of the buildings are also completely desecrated. People I chat with were once again very emotional talking how beautiful and prosperous the area was. A lot of it used to be jewellery shops, and there was even a five-star restaurant called Sissi.
      • The bombings were programmed, and there were very specific addresses targeted – ancient historical sites, high-traffic areas, ministry buildings, and hotels.
      • At the end of the day, Aleppo is a World Heritage city. It is still stunningly beautiful, no matter what it has gone through. There are 23 kilometres of souk shops, and the community will work together to re-build all of that.
        • In early 2017, many parts of Aleppo were completely abandoned, but little by little, people have returned to re-build what once was. And once again that is the same across the country. The country experienced war, and they are re-working really hard together to re-build what once was.
        • During the war, the Aleppo airport was out of service as it was near to the OF shooting zones. There are some flights now up and running to Iraq and Russia. I did note this while I was sitting in the Baghdad airport, flights running to Damascus via local carrier Cham Wings.
      • I really, really loved Aleppo, and I think it ranks up there now as quite possible one of my favourite places I ever visited in my life. The people were so kind, friendly and willing just to have a chat. They actively wanted to chat with me. And, they were just so kind. I bought a sandwich, and the owner of the sandwich stand insisted I have a drink and stay and chat with him. I bought some ice cream, and the owner said for me to have it for free. My goodness – kindness just out of this world. I think I am always going to have a soft spot for this place. I look forward for years to come, when the restoration is completed and Syria is back on the world’s stage. I hope to come back then, and see how beautiful it is, even though right now, it is still very much beautiful even despite what has happened.
  • Leaving Aleppo, I moved onto the mountain countryside. There was definitely more green, and it was a bit cooler because of the rise in the altitude. The mountain villages are really quite picturesque and fairy-tale like, rising up and out of these lush green valleys, with mountains surrounding them on all sides.
    • These villages, and even the coastal cities form a number of Christian and Orthodox communities. I felt that Aleppo in comparison was much more Muslim conservative. Moving more north, just observing the women, I saw less conservatism.
    • The mountains and valleys form a lot of cultivation – nuts, figs, citrus, even bananas.
    • The countryside unfortunately lost access to electricity and water when electric towers were destroyed. The OF groups attacked military checkpoints from hiding places in the mountains and villages. There were major restoration efforts to re-build all the towers.
    • In the countryside, I visited Krak des Chevaliers, this stunning ancient crusader castle overlooking all the valleys, mountains and a number of surrounding villages.
    • Krak was occupied for more than a year during the civil war. The surrounding villages suffered from shell bombing and missiles. Some people were tortured and thrown into wells. The site was liberated in 2016, but there was major efforts and apprehension to re-open because of the threat of hidden explosives.
  • When you hear of the social dynamics of Syrian culture and society, it’s not all too different. The education system is structured very similarly to Western systems, and so is the divide between public and private sector when it comes to employment. In public schools, children learn English, but also Arabic and French. School is mandatory, and parents can face penalties if their children not enrolled in school. Girls wear pink uniforms, and boys were blue uniforms. Because of the heat, class starts at 7:30 and usually ends by 1PM.
    • Males are obligated to join the military for two years, unless they have committed to university studies. Women are not obligated to the army, but can join if they so wish.
    • The right to vote starts at the age of 18. There is a presidential election every 7 years.
    • Contrary to what I have read and seen from a Western lens, Bashar Al-Assad (at least from a lot of the people I talked to while travelling) is really well-liked. And so, I think like every country, there is a divide in how people view their current government, how it is structured and how it is operating. I get the sense there is a lot of pro-regime versus non pro-regime (who took on the view that government will do anything to take down the OF groups even if it means shell-bombing innocent civilians) viewpoints out there. I met a lot more pro-regime people; and while I do not want to portray a bias, obviously a lot more of what I am going to write is from the one end. But, you really have to take in all views with a grain of salt, and just like with any media, you have to almost detach yourself so you can stay objective.
      • The sense I get from the one side is that his government has faced Palestinian and Hezbollah related political pressures. Syria did not necessarily have social troubles; people had / have access to what they need. The general view (at least from who I spoke to) was that the war was primarily over access to resources – mainly oil.
        • All along the way, in and out of the mountains, I saw a lot more beautiful, historic places.
          • The ancient water wheels or Nouriyas in Hama.
          • This other crusader castle hidden deep in the forests – Safita Citadel.
          • Ugarit or Ras Sharma – an ancient kingdom discovered by mistake by a farmer.
          • I also visited some coastal cities – Lattakia and Tartus; these seemed to be less affected by war. People in both cities were really nice again. Some wanted to chat, others wanted to take pictures. Similar to Aleppo, I was offered free ice cream. It was just mind-boggling how nice everyone was.
        • Homs was this quiet little city. I walked through an extensive part of it. It was the first city to be occupied in war, and the first to be liberated. The OF moved to Idlib after the major clashes. The modern quarters were not all too affected, but the old souks were civilly destroyed. I walked up and down some of the shelled neighbourhoods and it felt like a ghost town. Every so often I would hear children’s laughter and see a few boys playing soccer amongst the destruction. It was very uneasy for the heart. I had a bit of trouble sleeping that night after that walk; my mind raced, and I sobbed for a bit. It was just very emotional.
        • After Homs, I made my way to the spectacular Palmyra out in the desert. Before the war, Palmyra was one of the most visited sites in Syria. Some aspects of the site were destroyed, but it was truly magnificent to walk through, even on this really sunny, hot day. Two security guards, and a representative accompanied us from the governorate. So, everywhere we walked, someone was close by watching. There was even a reporter from Syrian local news, who wanted to know why I was in Syria. Yes, I was incredibly awkward, and I had no idea whether to look at him or the camera.
          • Palmyra is now a military zone. It was once a booming tourist town, but you can see it is completely annihilated. The site was occupied twice, and at one point, there were explosives everywhere.
          • A few families have started to come back, but it is still very quiet.
          • The main museum was completely destroyed. The Director took what he could to Damascus for safe-keeping, but was shot in the arm in the process.
          • Visiting Palmyra was definitely a highlight for me. It was breathtaking, and there is so, so much history here. I ended up visiting Bosra, down in the south just at the very end of the journey.
            • Bosra is bit like Palmyra’s ugly step-sister. Instead of limestone architecture, it is made up of black stone. There used to be civilians living within the quarters of the ancient city, but they have since mostly vacated during the war.
            • Here and in Palmyra, there are a lot of illegal excavations. Sometimes, the perpetrators are caught through customs at the border.
            • The theatre of Bosra’s citadel is what hits the site out of the park. I was given a countdown of 3, 2, 1, and I walked into something I could not even really explain if I wanted to. Its magnitude, and splendour is bar none. It is basically one of those places you have to see for yourself.
            • Bosra is recuperating. One of the snack and souvenir shops outside the citadel re-opened three months ago. But, I feel they suffer, as they look at you with so much emotion as you sit down for a tea and chat.
          • One of my last visits was to the Mar Musa monastery in basically the middle of nowhere. The monastery is hooked up high onto a mountainside, facing deep valleys beneath. You climb basically a long trail of stairs to reach the top. Your luggage gets carted up a basket that looks like a zip-line. The monastery caretaker is Nafae. He’s from Tartus – he comes every so often and stays for a few years – 2 years, 5 years, maybe 15 years. He tries really hard to convince you to stay for 2 years too. I find myself politely saying no, but it was hard because he is so nice and funny.
            • Visiting Mar Musa is deeply spiritual. You are disconnected – there is no internet, but you have access to electricity still, simple washroom facilities, a warm room, and a group of connected, religious individuals who want to know “why you are visiting Syria”.
            • The monastery believes in unity – it practices many religions based on the preface that many of its participating religious community members and visitors come from different walks of life and religious practice. The monastery engages in a number of important initiatives – one of which is a creative psychosocial program for inner city children affected by war. Children were perceived during and after the war as drawing in “black and white”. These programs use mediums like music, to help them think and feel differently in a more ‘happy way’.
            • The main prayer room has Christian and Catholic frescos, but the underlying foundation of the room feels like a mosque. Everyone is invited to come and visit no matter what they believe in.
            • After soaking in the sunset of the valley, we sit down to pray and meditate for a bit over an hour in a dark room shrouded by candles. The sisters are dressed in robes, and black headpieces. The silent, solemn prayer chats are in Arabic, but calming nonetheless. I find myself lost in dark thoughts, but by the end, my mind has calmed. It was the most spiritual way to end this leg of the journey.

And so, that closes another chapter to this journey, as I make my way to the next place. I said it already, but travelling through Syria has been so emotional because of what it was but also eye-opening from a mental and resilience perspective. It still has not been easy to travel while I am having constant mood swings, but a lot of the emotion of course has been from seeing inexplicable things that are just even the end of it all. I did not see the cruelty, the trauma; I just saw these incredibly eye-opening scenes, and heard the traumatic stories behind them and allowed my imagination and heart to go wild.

I think that I am gaining more and more of an understanding as to how support structures can help a person cope with negativity; but, the unfortunate part is that these structures work through experiences together. I think I am also gaining a better understanding about how one grasps and takes hold of little things that contribute to their resilience. I have seen so many families now that just want to live for each other. Friends that just want to live for each other; human beings that want to be there for each other. If they want to start over, it does not have to take forever, they can do it in one month if they really want to.

The kindness of Syria has been out of this world. I never felt so safe and comforted somewhere, despite feeling so incredibly lonely at the same time. I can only wish and encourage so many people out there to come to or come back to this beautiful place. It is safe, it is opening, and it deserves the world’s attention in nothing but a positive way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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