Written by Muhammad Imran Khan
Photography by Wietse Jongsma
I lived in Damascus, Syria, for about two years (during the period 2002–2003, 2005, 2008–9) as a student of Arabic and Qur’anic Qur’anic orthoepy. I was always curious about the culture and the natural anthropologist in me meant I tried to learn about the lives of the people there (as I had already been keeping annual diaries since a child I was almost self-programmed to do so).
1. The thing that most impressed me when I went the first time as a teenager was the remarkable comfort with which people got on with each other. People were not afraid to befriend one another and I loved how Muslims, Christians, Druze and other communities got on remarkably well.
2. For me I found it to be the friendliest, kindest and warm-spirited nation I have ever had the privilege of experiencing (I have visited 20+ countries and lived in 3 others for at least a year). People oozed benevolence and were remarkably graceful. This made me feel very welcome and safe. I broke out of the reticence I had imbibed in England (sorry England, still love you) and gladly brought back the expression of the warm-spirit I had always had.
3. Though poverty existed, begging was not as widespread as you might expect. Sometimes people worked more than one job.
4. In mosques, speeches were generally about personal development, spirituality and a form of Islam that had not one scintilla of resemblance to the uglified behemoth now sprawling the region in its putrid monstrosity.
5. People generally behaved with a lot of dignity and took pride in their work. The well pressed clothes of Syrian workers in the capital was a conscious daily effort it seemed.
6. There was a lot of artistic expression in singing, calligraphy and music that adorned the atmosphere.
7. Hospitality was widespread even among people with less “material” means and it was easy to befriend people. I still have friends from my time there and the qualities I used to see in them abide despite the pain of their country being laid to waste.
8. A French friend of mine taught Bashar al-Asad’s children French at a language centre (2009). This is positive as it shows the relative safety felt at the time.
9. There was a good variety of fresh produce and in-season fruit and vegetables that made for a nourishing experience.
10. Transport around cities was in small minibuses (approximately 10–12 people) that were initially about 5 SYP about £0.05p for most journeys which was very cheap.
11. There had been a progressive improvement in the road infrastructure (bridges and tunnels) which in the capital and in other cities I had been to was very good even in 2002.
12. There would be a thorough clean up of communal areas in apartment buildings on Friday so it would some sprite to the day-off.
1. Officials from the airport to the bureaucracy offices appeared gloomy and sullen; unwelcoming even. The bureaucracy was efficient even though very communist in style, things were filed in envelopes and they kept changing the rules every few months.
2. Although it was always fairly cheap, it was far more economical prior to the Iraq war 2003 when there was an influx of Iraqis. At that point it was mainly the rents which became very high. But real estate was also extortionate (most people lived in flats in tower blocks), although less so in smaller towns, at the time I compared in 2008 comparative flats in most regions in England were about the same price as those in decent inner city mixed-class suburbs of Damascus.
3. The traffic when at lights was annoying as many drivers would press their horns (extremely loud) before vehicles even had the chance to move.
4. Being a dictatorship a sense of fear could be sensed readily. You had to be careful not to express political views.
5. I was once accosted in the centre by a total stranger slobbering over me claiming he loved OBL and wanting to befriend me with an enthusiasm which only fans of celebrities might understand (had I indeed been even remotely befitting of such an epithet) though I — perhaps unfortunately for his espionage mission — have no fondness and much derision for belligerents who sow hatred between people and cause destruction. My Syrian friend who I lived with was also thrown in the back of an undercover security car and aggressively questioned about me.
Republished with permission, as per Quora’s Terms of Service, under the subsection titled, “Quora’s Licenses to You”.
Photography was taken from the following Flickr album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/11497410@N08/albums/72157658540783919/with/21600860386/