Syria: A Crossroads of Civilizations and Contrasts
DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian Ministry of Tourism invited
journalists from Tehran to Tunis to check out its top
attractions during a trip to the normally reclusive country.
Fox News hopped a caravan and went along for the ride.
Weaving through the narrow streets of old Damascus you can
see women in modest black Islamic dress, or women in little
black dresses. Syria is as diverse in public dresscode as
Saudi Arabia is not.
In a remote town towards the center of the country, we
walked by a shop selling shirts with cut-outs that had
"Girls Rock" written across the front. It was next to a
quite obvious lingerie shop, on a block that had almost as
many shop signs written in English as Arabic.
News Travels to Syria.
The traditional versus the modern, insular versus global,
modest and discreet versus "out there" or, as we from New
York would say, "in your face," are the series of contrasts
that define Syria, just as they do many countries across the
But in an ancient capital like Damascus, it is all the more
striking because of the juxtaposition of dramatic and
obvious antiquity and architecture with rhythmically ringing
We heard Damascene night-life gives St. Tropez a run for
its money, but I, invited with a group of fellow journalists
for something called the "Silk Road Festival," was too worn
out by the pace of traversing the country on a bus to hit
the discos after dark. Not so much worn out, actually, as
wanting to be alert by day to process as many impressions as
The political story of Syria is well-documented, the
essentially one-party show that is Ba’ath, and the ruling
family that is Assad. Dissent is not particularly tolerated.
Syria supports Hamas and Hezbollah which the United States
calls terrorist organizations, and which Syria calls
legitimate resistance groups. There are differences between
Damascus and DC.
The people of Syria get less press than the politics. My
encounters with them were memorable.
We visited a family in Damascus where several generations
had gathered together to visit an aging relative. A
fifteen-year-old boy latched onto me, eager to practice his
English, which was pretty impressive. His delight in the
good grades he received in English at his school, his
interest in handwriting, and his impeccable manners were old
school, even somewhat archaic. He respectfully stood up from
his seat each time I got up or sat down on the sofa. It was
like talking to an old fashioned extremely mannered
gentleman. Until he whipped out his iPhone and showed me his
Hannah Montana photo montage, which contained dozens of
pictures of the American teenage idol!
Four generations of his family were gathered on a Friday
evening to pay respects to the 86-year-old matriarch who was
starting to slip into either Alzheimers or dementia. Her
great-grandson, the Hannah Montana fan, told me stories
about her life, her losses, the small plants she tends to on
her balcony which she treats as her friends. He was tender
and patient and engaging with her. Her daughter looks after
her, at home.
An American in the Middle East these days never knows what
sort of reception he or she will get. It can be raging or
rhapsodic. In Syria, I sensed an eagerness, generally
speaking, to smile at or talk to foreigners, which is not to
say I did not get a scowl or two from the random man on the
street, or the vendor in the souk who had had one too many
visitors photograph him toiling in a medieval tailor shop or
hauling goods on his donkey.
But there is also a certain kindness between locals, an
observation based on very little data, but nevertheless
People were eager to help one another out with directions
for example, as I traveled the country, with a certain
patience lost in many other parts of the world. To an extent
that may have to do with a less harried pace of life in
Syria, at least as compared to New York or London, but it
may be something else. Because frankly, despite the fact
that people in Syria seem to be more leisurely about
socializing, enjoying a good cup of tea, or grape flavored
tobacco taken through a traditional water pipe, many people
do work more than one job to make ends meet.
So life is hardly in the slow lane.
Sitting in the courtyard of the Azem Palace, the grandest
Ottoman residence in Damascus, on a Friday morning were
students sketching the historic home. Girls and boys sat
separately but socialized as a group. They were part of a
school art group that gathers each Friday — their day off —
to sketch and paint at different sites of interest in the
city. They were clearly very proud of Damascus and spent a
good chunk of their free time studying it. They were also
involved in a group that is trying to get the Barada River
cleaned up. The Barada, once the lifeblood of the Syrian
capital, has been swallowed up by development and is only
now 15 percent of its original size. It is also polluted.
A group of young men were particularly chatty, and invited
me to attend a concert later to raise awareness of the drive
to clean up the river. Unfortunately we couldn’t make it.
But the kicker was when we parted. It was at that point that
they introduced themselves formally for the first time,
giving me their traditional Arab names, but then revealed
that they prefer to go by their nicknames "Cookie" and
From fluent English speaking teens called Cookie to Bedouins
without electricity, there was plenty of hospitality to take
in. We stopped along our way once to photograph a Bedouin
encampment. Our guide told us not to take their pictures.
But we decided to ask the Bedouins themselves anyway, and
not only was the answer yes, but it was followed by a whole
lot of posing. They had pitched up their tents to that
particular spot near Aleppo for the summer and autumn
They live off the milk and cheeses produced by their sheep.
In the winter they live in a house in Hama. There they have
television, which they don’t see for half the year. But they
don’t use the internet, which we discovered when they asked
us to send them pictures. We never did quite figure out how
to manage that. They invited us for tea in their tents. We
only declined because we had a schedule to keep and we were
already running late. They insisted several times before the
we scurried back to a bus and agitated guide.
The final close encounter was in Hama, a religiously
conservative city where there was a very bloody uprising
against the regime took place in 1982.
A couple of journalists in my group wanted to visit a
particular mosque in Salamiyah, not far from Hama. So we
jumped in a taxi and made the half-hour drive. The young
cabbie was not only helpful in finding the mosque — in fact
a small army of people got involved with us for the hunt for
the mosque — but then took us to a few more sites, becoming
increasingly attentive and solicitous to our every possible
In the end, again, we needed to rejoin our group, but the
driver insisted we visit his home for a cup of coffee. We
told him we were pressed for time. He asked us to give him
10 minutes. Phoning ahead, he made sure the coffee was ready
to be served the minute we arrived so as not to delay us an
extra moment. He brought it out in delicate cups on a tray
with homemade cookies. His father came out to greet us. I
went to shake his hand, he recoiled, as strict muslims often
avoid shaking women’s hands. But he did it with a big smile
rather than big embarrassment. The women were in a room in
the back. I got to go visit with them, while the men stayed
with the men. As a Western women in situation like this, you
get to play both scenes, and visit with both the men and the
women. As we left, the father scrambled to yank a bunch of
pomegranates from the small yard in front of his home, to
send us off with nourishment.
Whether it was physical, emotional, or intellectual
nourishment, the Syrians I encountered all seemed to want to
offer something up, to leave their guests with comfort and
memories of the visit.
This is the first in a series of reports by Fox News
Correspondent Amy Kellogg, who recently returned from a
10-day trip to Syria at the invitation of the Syrian
government. This report covers Kellogg’s initial impressions
of culture in the capital city of Damascus.
Tomorrow Kellogg will explore Americans in Syria.
- Oct 26,