t l R r

A Syrian Venture

Syria may not appear to be the ideal holiday destination at present, but this did not stop Megan, Rich, Rufus and myself heading out to visit our friend Oli in Damascus two weeks ago. A few days before we were due to leave, the Foreign Office advised against all non-essential travel to the country, but despite this we decided to fly anyway – a decision we wholeheartedly did not regret.

The ‘situation’ (the term ubiquitously used by Syrians now) had obviously deterred a number of other travellers. Our flight out from Heathrow was less than half empty, and bar one other girl, we were the only tourists on the plane; we must have stuck out like sore-thumbs but this was something we did not mind at all. The flight and passport control went without a hitch, and after Oli found us wandering around the airport we were soon on a service bus into town.

The next few days we spent visiting Damascus’ Old City, including the Great Umayyad Mosque, the Azem Palace, and the souks. By Thursday we had decided that to avoid the Friday protests, it would likely be safer for us if we headed into the desert and visit Palmyra/Tadmur – the ruined Roman city that was once ruled by Zenobia. The scale of the ruins here are fantastic, from the size of the stones used in the construction to the sheer vastness of the city. Our first day there was sweltering, so we sought shelter in the oasis nearby where we ended up being invited into a ‘Garden of Paradise’. Our host provided dates and olives, which we ate with our hummus. Besides the fine food, the garden also had a metal tower which we were allowed to climb and get views across the oasis, desert and ruins.

On our second day in Palmyra we got up extra early to catch the sunrise, only to be then rained on by a massive thunderstorm. We found shelter in the local restaurant that eventually opened so we could warm ourselves with some sugary tea – Syrians by the way seem to have an extra strong sweet-tooth, and will drink tea with enough sugar to leave an undissolved layer at the bottom of the cup. As midday approached we headed to the castle out-of-town, and also out of harm’s way. From our vantage point above the city we could make out some minor unrest was occurring in Tadmur.

Prior to our arrival in Syria, Oli had landed herself a bit-part in an major TV-series due to be shown throughout the Arab world during Ramadan. The production team were hopelessly disorganised though and insisted that Oli return to Aleppo to shoot some more scenes before the lead actors left the country. Our plan was to catch the last coach northwards, but when this got mysteriously cancelled, the film crew arranged for us a car-ride early the next morning. The classy Mercedes wasn’t quite big enough for all five of us, but we did get to see amazing landscapes as we drove from the barren desert into the Fertile Crescent. The film crew didn’t skimp on accommodation though – Oli had a room in a 4-star hotel, which we promptly rearranged so we could all sleep on the floor.

While Oli was filming, the rest of us wandered round the souks (much better than in Damascus in my opinion, though the sellers do pressure you more here), eventually finding ourselves in the meat market. I don’t think many tourists make it here as immediately all the butchers got excited and gathered round to take pictures with us. They even got us into one of their shops to pose with the hanging meat.

Oli had the next day off filming, so we decided that while we were close enough we would visit Serjilla – one of Syria’s best-preserved dead cities. Like Palmyra, these ruins were fantastic, though the settings were completely different. Being further north, the fields around Serjilla were filled with wild flowers as well as grasses growing in between everything. Given that the buildings had been there for at least ten centuries, the intactness of some of the buildings is remarkable, as well as the standard of stonework.

While we were exploring the ruins, Oli received a phone call from the Foreign Office. A few days before, they had changed their advice to against all travel to Syria, and also suggested British nationals should start evacuating Syria by their own means. While this rattled us a bit, Oli was not deterred from staying. She also got a call from the film crew asking that we return straight away for more filming. They provided the taxi, but on our way back through a nearby town, the driver took us down a dirt track avoiding the main road. Looking through the back window, we saw the reason why – another small protest marching through the town-centre.

Back at the film-set waiting for Oli to finish filming, the four of us were approached by some of the extras asking if we wanted to become famous and star in the series. Of course we said yes, so were led away to maquillage and given a 30-minute make-over. It should be pointed out that the programme is set in the 19th century and from what I could make out appeared to revolve around a necklace, Jews and a ghost. Our role would be to play guests at a dinner party at what felt like a British Embassy garden, so the boys were given an array of comedy facial hair, while the girls were given long flowing dresses. We didn’t get any lines, and the whole experience didn’t inspire any of us to pursue a career in acting, though we did get paid for our troubles. While at the film-set we also got the chance to ride some camels, much to the amusement of the locals.

With our filming completed we returned to Damascus to spend our last days in Syria in the capital. The highlight on our last day was a trip to the hammam, or public baths. Men and women wash separately, so Rich and I were left at the Nur Ad-Din in the spice souk – Damascus’ most beautiful. The experience included a steam room, a vigorous scrub down followed by a brief massage. As you would imagine the masseur was hefty and strong, and his finishing move was a massive thump to the spine. It’s not for the prudish, but we came out thoroughly cleaned and refreshed, and all for the cost of a fiver.

It was with a heavy heart that we had to leave Syria. The ‘situation’ had certainly added an air of incertitude throughout the holiday, but despite what the news reports were perpetuating back home, we still managed to have an amazing time. The people we met were so friendly and enthusiastic, and coupled with the amazing landscapes we saw, there is no doubt that I will one day make a return. At the airport we saw plenty of people who, judging by their excess luggage, were leaving Syria and were not tourists. Speaking to one woman in the check-in queue, she had been ordered to evacuate her embassy, as had staff from numerous other countries. Consequently the flight back was a lot fuller compared to ten days before.

Many thanks to Oli for being our guide – it was great to see our friend again, and thanks to her we certainly managed to pack a lot in, even if at times things turned towards the surreal.