“What does the media tell you about my country?” Ray asked me, one day.
Gruesome images start racing through my mind - the dead child on the beach, the ongoing civil war, the destruction of Aleppo, hundreds and thousands of Syrians refugees looking for a home and so on…
I tone down my answer a bit and tell him that it’s mostly about the civil war.
He shrugs and says that Aleppo is now completely safe and that there is more to his country, than war and death. His statement kind of echoes with me, as it certainly was true, there has to be more to Syria than war and death.
And, I immediately realize that apart from the civil war, I know nothing about his country. Their people, their culture, their food, their history. Nothing!
Mark Twain once said, about the city, “To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
Then he alerts me to the fact that Damascus is the oldest inhabited city in the world. Before the war, the historical attractions made it a very popular travel destination. Damascus was also an important cultural and religious hub in the Arab and Levant world.
He says these magic words and I am immediately hooked.
(I guess it’s time, I properly introduce Ray, my partner in crime in this article. He is from Damascus, Syria. He is funny yet shy, and not your ‘typical Arab guy’. He loves football, his nephew and makdous. He designs buildings for a living and is helping me update my music library, one Arabic song at a time.)
I start searching for tickets online, only to be alerted with travel alerts and warnings against travelling to the country.
*Must find a way to get in, MUST*
I keep my laptop aside for a while and ask Ray to help me compile a ‘must see’ list for Damascus.
Without taking a minute, he comes up with a few names and the conversation continued…
1. ‘Al-Hamidiyah Souq’
Me: What’s so special about the Souq?
Ray: It’s almost like an ancient shopping mall. A little Middle Eastern, a little European. There are shops selling antiques, spices, and handicrafts. There are Cafes where you could try Levant cuisine. It’s hustling and bustling, a beautifully chaotic part of our heritage.
(Trying hard to control my growing excitement.)
2. ‘The Ummayad Mosque’
Me: The name sounds kind of interesting!
Ray: The architecture is even more interesting. Based on the ‘Mosque of the Prophet’, in Medina. It is one of the oldest and grandest mosques in the world. Over 3000 years old, it has an impressive grand courtyard. The mosaics from 8th century are a sight to see as well. On our way out, I’ll treat you to ‘bouza’, Arabic ice cream from the renowned Bekdash Ice Cream Shop. Even Bill Clinton couldn’t resist himself!
Me: You are such a show off!
Ray: Can’t really help myself, Sorry.
3. ‘The Castle of Damascus’
Me: Interesting. Can I bring my crown along?
Ray:Only if you want to be the Queen of Ruins.
Me: You are such a mood killer. What’s so special btw?
Ray:You know it’s a registered UNESCO World Heritage site? It’s not as grand as the Aleppo one, but even the ruins are magnificent of this medieval fortress.
4. ‘Mount Qasioun’
Me: The Mount?
*Looks at him inquisitively*
Ray: You can see the panoramic view of the city from there. You can go there at any time, although the view is perhaps most spectacular at night. The whole city lights up and the minarets of mosques look ethereal, lit up in green lights.
Me: Enough, enough! Let me explore the other places on my own.
Ray: On your own?
As we wrapped up our conversation, I couldn’t help but wonder how well my mother will take this news. I had chosen Syria as my next destination and I was aware a rage fit would follow. Maybe, I shouldn't tell her or maybe this article will convince her, it isn't that bad out there. Probably not. Definitely not.
My sincere apologies, Mom.
Can I really run a travel magazine if I only choose the usual routes?
I am sorry that you are stuck with a rebel like me.
On the brighter side? More antiques for home!
*dodges an imaginary flying chappal*
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