Any place on its way to hell or already there has been preceded by stories like this. Small things that insist on attention and remain in memory, because that is the world people spontaneously create and sustain all the time in their daily lives when they are free to do so, alongside whatever authorities and governments and media regimes they may live under. Violence disrupts this everyday freedom, as it has disrupted even my memories from a distance.
After several days of conferencing, our group of twenty or so takes a day-trip to the ruins of ancient Palmyra, over 200 kilometers northeast. The journey takes about two hours by bus. On the far outskirts as we leave the city before entering the desert, we drive through a monumental construction site covering an area of what looks to be several square miles, extending on either side of the highway. It is a housing project, a large-scale settlement clearly intended for and anticipating hundreds if not thousands of people.
I pay the bill and we head out walking for an hour or so in the neighborhood, which is outside the old city. With no particular place to go and the barest of maps, we circle the area of our hotel, sometimes retracing our steps but all in the process of orientation. It is not late when we start, maybe eight o’clock or so, but there are few people around and most of the businesses are closed. We pass pastry shops displaying pyramids of sweets, and several others that seem devoted entirely to wedding announcement cards, examples of which are exhibited in the windows.
“Is this your first visit?” asked the passport official. “Yes.” “Welcome to Syria.”
Just over two years ago, in March 2010, I was a tourist in Damascus: I ate things, I bought things, I danced around a tiled fountain with the cigar-wielding brother of a restaurant owner in the Christian Quarter. I walked through souks, madrassas, caravanserais and hammams; I was guided around the Umayyad Mosque by a young Arabic teacher who doubled as a guide for extra cash, as families sat around in the sunny inner courtyard passing the time, eating, watching their children play. I was on holiday in Syria. This hardly seems possible now.
Over the next couple of weeks, the Humanity blog will feature a series of posts penned by Kelly Grotke, a postdoctoral fellow at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights, University of Helsinki. In her political travel memoir, which concerns a visit to Damascus in March 2010, Grotke ruminates on expectation and exception from the visitor's point of view.