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. Clearly they are items to which much care and expense are devoted, works of art the like of which I would never expect to receive in the mail in advance of a happy celebration. Perhaps they are hand delivered. The university must be nearby, too, since we pass several stores offering textbooks and familiar student supplies. We walk by a building and decide that it is an important civic monument by reason of its lighting, form and balance, only to find out the next evening that it is just the old Hejaz train station built during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, no longer in use and now housing small exhibits and booksellers. But it is still beautiful. Later on, I pause when some stray cats come running out of the fenced-in park of ruins adjoining the national museum. A man carrying a plastic garbage bag in his hands is walking up the street toward them, on the way to a nearby dumpster. The bag apparently holds the remains of a restaurant’s evening business; a few words spoken to the expectant felines and he reaches in and throws some of its contents down, evidently a routine. The rest goes in the dumpster, and then he leaves.
On the way back to the hotel I stop at a curbside newsstand, and purchase a copy of the only English-language publication I see, Syria Today. I don’t know what to expect, but it will be my bedtime reading. Suspicious, I wonder if it is strategically available, just for non-Arabic reading tourists like myself, given its cost and language. Settled in my room, I turn on the light beside the bed and open the March 2010 issue on “Unlocking Civil Society,” whose cover shows a set of keys tagged with the question, “Access all areas?” While the cover can still be seen on the magazine’s website,* the vast majority of the content is unavailable there. There is a cultural section, and I look at that first. A gallery nearby is holding a show featuring artwork by Iraqi refugees (who number in the hundreds of thousands in Syria); there are clubs and upcoming concerts along with other events listed just as they are in so many cities across the world. In short, it seems altogether a very ordinary and fairly even-toned publication, albeit with obligatory nods to authority in the midst of ongoing dialogue and negotiation over the reform of politics and society. The feature story contains a long, detailed discussion of the history and current effects of laws governing civic association in Syria since the imposition of emergency rule in 1963, and questions whether they are adequate for the present and future, not least since they have a dampening effect on beneficial work by charitable associations, such as those helping childhood victims of cancer. None of this reads like the propaganda I was apparently expecting; there is nothing along the lines of the almost comically hyperbolic call-and-response that passes for communication between the hunter and the hunted in the war on terrorism, where “death to our enemies and their values” too often passes for both slogan and reality on either side. If there are lies or half-truths in this publication, they form only part of a much more intricate and extending mosaic.
Later, in conversations with non-Syrians who know the country well, I learn that the magazine is fairly representative of a genuine reformist effort within Syria, and has occasionally walked a very fine line with the Assad government, which has shut the magazine down in the past. Since direct political conversations with Syrians while I am just passing through are difficult and might impose risks whose consequences I would never have to face, I am left only with the sense that there are people in Syria who are, or were, trying to change their society for the better. I am reminded of a conversation I had long ago in another country, with a Syrian who told me in the filtered paraphrase of memory, “We don’t all hate Americans, and we don’t all believe that what our government does is right; there are people who would like things to change.” I wish I had been less naïve then, though I reciprocated, once the opening was given. Years later now, I regret that the conversation did not develop, mostly because I was much younger then and lived fairly unselfconsciously, even when traveling, within an easy if parochial universalism sustained largely by the accident of my American birth. But some things just stick in the mind, whether because they are extraordinary or just not understood, for the time when they may be summoned out of memory to complete some otherwise precarious half-thought from the past.
The next day begins with a visit to the National Museum. I purchase a guidebook along with my ticket and go inside. On the back of the guidebook is a quote by Andre Parrot, archaeologist and former director of the Louvre: “Every civilized human has two homelands, his own and Syria.” Whatever the merits of Parrot’s twentieth-century gloss on nineteenth-century sensibilities, there is an implicit welcome in this chosen phrase, no hint of a “clash of cultures.” One can at any rate choose whether or not to be civilized. Soon after entering, a Syrian man strikes up a conversation with me as I’m struggling to read an ancient Greek inscription on a stone block depicting the god Aphlad, protector of cities and receiver of prayers for familial health and prosperity. After introductions, we pass several minutes in amiable discussion of history and the ancient world, topics he knows much more about than I do. His pleasure in the place is obvious, and I am not surprised when he tells me that he comes there often. He directs me to a few of the museum’s highlights, since this is my first visit, and after we part I walk through the galleries, following through on his suggestions. He must still go there, this scholar of antiquity, at least it pleases me to imagine that he does, even now, finding other people for whom the dead may be briefly summoned back to breathing life by his enthusiasm and the care he has taken to make their acquaintance. Afterwards, I go outside to meet A, and we walk around the large acanthus and ruin-filled park surrounding the museum. There is a fountain, large enough to accommodate several paddling ducks and geese, and a small café; people are scattered about, enjoying the sun in this garden of ruins, reading, taking a break from their jobs inside. Around a corner, we pass through the entrance to the Palmyrene tomb and the restored synagogue of Dura Europos, with its rare frescoes of Jewish figurative art. And then we move on to old Damascus, first-born of cities, mother of generations …
The first thing that is visible from our approach is the old citadel, and we walk along its border as we find our way to the route that will take us into the old city. It is just before noon or so, and the place is crowded. From time to time, in-between breaks in the crowd, there are young men or children sitting on spread-out blankets offering a tool that will carve fruits and vegetables into magnificent floral shapes. We enter through the souk al-Hamidiyah, which is more crowed still, likely because it is Friday and this passage is one of the main routes to the Umayyad mosque, which we would visit on another afternoon. After al-Houla, I read that shopkeepers here shuttered their businesses for several days in mourning and protest, but this is a different time and people are out doing daily or window shopping, buying ice-creams rolled in pistachio nuts, passing through. We exit the souk, and spend the rest of the afternoon much as we had the night before, circling around the narrow streets and pausing where we will, typical tourist rhythms shared with many other visitors to the city that day. Shops and restaurants are open now, offering embroidered fabrics, rugs, jewelry, hand-mixed perfumes, metalwork, sweets and spices, roasted nuts just off the fire that can be sampled from large trays. I’m happy, I like the press of the crowds and the calls from the shops. A living, busy place, one where a tourist is, after all, meant to feel at home. And to spend money, of course. About this it is hard for me to be at all cynical. Shopping malls serve the same function, and in a far more impersonal and opaque way inside those economies where consumer activity is held up as a civic, collective good. But here, the great game of exchange played between buyer and seller is a conversation between individuals about values, monetary and otherwise, which is sometimes short and sometimes long, sometimes outside and sometimes in, and may occasionally involve a cup of tea.
After lunch we find our way back to a jewelry shop we’d passed by earlier and go inside. We buy some things, beautiful little things, but also spend a lot of time talking with the owner. Early on, when I mention I am from the U.S., he inquires about Fox News. Do I know it? he asks. The question confuses me, since I didn’t realize the reach of Fox News extended so far, all the way to a little shop on a narrow street in Damascus. All in a moment I begin imagining a world of other far-away places where very peculiar American language-games involving communists, Nazis, God and the free market may have penetrated. But soon I realize we are not really having a political discussion at all, it is just that another American had been to his shop recently and he is making conversation. He goes over to a drawer under the counter and pulls out a photograph of himself and a blond woman who looks vaguely familiar but whom I can’t quite place. From Fox News, he says as he hands it over to me, and I recall her card being attached to the back. She must have been there during Ford’s recent visit, it would make sense. He laughs as he tells us how much money she spent, several of his best pieces, and of course this is part of the game we are playing too, so now that the fun has begun again I start fishing for how much and we stop when the number gets into the thousands, far beyond my means. I have no trouble at all picturing the scene, seeing her survey many of the same things I am surveying and talking as I am with the owner as she decides what to buy. Despite the economy of scale, this is the leveling effect of commerce, which has called up an unnerving Doppelgänger in the midst of this foreign place, an American other, whatever else may be said of us as people.
Afterwards, we go back to the hotel, since the conference group will meet in the lobby for a tour of the old city before dinner. There are twenty or so of us that walk back to the old city, entering again through the al-Hamidiyah souk. As we walk, the drone of bass and percussion echoes down the long passageway and a melody begins to surface and arc as we get closer to the square where our guide will meet us. A band is playing on the left hand side of the plaza, people are gathered around watching, and the song is Coldplay’s “Yellow.” The adjacent mosque and its minarets are lit up against the evening sky, and birds circle above, looking for handouts and throwaways from the people who are out enjoying the evening in the crowded square. The band’s next number is “Sweet Home Alabama,” and they play it very well. I am not imaginative enough a person to make up such a thing. I recall hearing once that the guitarist said its famous riff came to him in a dream, perhaps divinely inspired, and this seems plausible enough under the circumstances. Our guide arrives and leads us away from the music and through souks, gates, and bathhouses, past old churches, ancient walls and monuments, down the biblical Straight Street of St. Paul, our last diversion before the conference starts the next day. Afterwards, as our group enters a restaurant where we will later be entertained by a whirling dervish with an illuminated cloak, a young man in dirty clothing approaches, begging, saying he is a refugee from Fallujah and asking us please for a little money, a few coins, anything.