How much do tourists look, but not see?
I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately. I returned from a visit to Syria on 14 March. Quickly after that, protests erupted against corruption and demanding reform, initially in the southern city of Dera’a but spreading quickly to major towns and cities. If the story has followed a similar pattern to other uprisings of the Arab Spring, the response of Syrian authorities has been more repressive than others. The few images that have made their way out of the country have made for grim viewing. At the time of writing there’s no end in sight as the country’s hardline military regime takes a hard line against protestors.
All of this feels a long way away from the Syria that I saw. I spent much of my trip visiting the so-called Dead Cities, Roman-era settlements set among the limestone massif of north-eastern Syria that are so well preserved you expect the locals to wander out, wearing togas and sandals, greet you in and then go about their business. I loved the country, and was delighted that I’d visited despite suggestions from friends to the contrary that I reconsider given events elsewhere. My Mum didn’t really approve. Frankly, I didn’t give their concerns a second’s thought when eating pistachio ice cream in Damascus’ souq, strolling the battlements of Krak des Chevaliers – possibly the best castle in the world – or hitching a lift on a Bedouin farmer’s motorbike. If I’m being honest I’ve never felt safer anywhere in the world.
Given what’s happened since then, reconciling these two views of Syria have proved difficult. Which is real, the grainy images of a country in turmoil, or my own experiences, of a beautiful, little-visited land that felt every inch like the next big thing in travel?
Looking back, there were a few clues about the people and place. A Kurdish taxi driver took me to his village close to the Turkish border outside Aleppo. It was remote and poor, but the neighbouring town was noticeably more prosperous. He said with a wry smile that this was where the police lived, who were the richest people in the area due to the back-handers they took. In Damascus at Friday prayers a heavy police presence materialised, noting who was doing what on exiting the Ummayad Mosque. They obviously suspected that not everyone was planning to admire the jaw-dropping mosaics. And on several occasions young Syrians I was speaking to would look around urgently during conversations, like they were conscious of being watched.
None of this made a huge impression at the time. Rather selfishly I was relieved the country appeared peaceful and didn’t ask too many questions. While that’s wise practice when it comes to politics in many countries, it’s left me with a feeling that I had my head in the clouds. I have mixed feelings about the trip, especially as I came away feeling that the country was not on the verge of revolt. Whether this is naivety or a sign of the careful planning that has gone into the protests, I’m not sure.
Despite the unease I feel when I see Syria on the news, my visit there has made me care more deeply about what’s going on. I find myself reading traveller’s updates on the Thorn Tree daily to see what it’s like currently. I’ve also emailed some of the friends I made to ask if they are safe but have had no replies.
Next time I take a trip like this, though, I shall try to look harder, as however much I loved the country, I can’t escape the feeling that I missed a big part of the picture. I suspect many of us, flying in for a few weeks or less, then buzzing off somewhere else, are doomed to do the same. Tourism’s value, to individual and host, only goes so far.