Back in Time – Remembering a More Peaceful Syria

Damascus Airport

It has been widely reported that Syria is currently up in arms and engulfed in flames, but it wasn’t always so.  Back in 2005, I used to travel to Syria on a monthly basis, and we will be posting little details of what it used to be like, something that I believe has interest for both historical purposes and as a memorial to a time that will never return, and a “before” impression of the impression I had of the country’s invaluable cultural treasures – many of which have since been damaged in the fighting.  


In the semi-twilight of Damascus airport at four in the morning, it’s pretty much normal to wonder how in the world you ended up there.  It’s also normal to wonder when the next plane out was leaving but, sadly, that wasn’t an option for me.  I had just gotten there – and I had  work to do.

I nervously negotiated the immigration process, using a combination of English and sign language to communicate with the olive-uniformed airport personnel.  At each position, I became more and more worried that no one in the airport seemed to have a basic command of the English language.  I’d been to quite a few places, and had never had quite this hard a time talking to the airport people.  The uniforms weren’t good for my nerves, either.

About half an hour after leaving the plane, I emerged into the civilian part of the airport where I was greeted by a few desultory guys with moustaches leaning against a wall and holding up signs with names on them.  None of the signs had my name on them, so I walked past them to look for the official taxi stand.

It was unmanned.  There was a hand-written sign on the counter presumably giving instructions on what to do in this event, but it was in Arabic.  There was nothing even remotely resembling an information desk.

At this point, I stood completely still.  I would have cried, but that wouldn’t have been particularly manly.  I knew I could just walk out and grab a random cab on the curb, but years of travel in Latin America had taught me that that could be a very, very bad idea.  I had no idea what to do next.

And then a cell phone rang.

Normally, this wouldn’t have made any difference.  Ringtones blend into the background of airports like the sound of airplanes or the PA announcing flights.  It is not something one pays attention to.

But this one was impossible to ignore.  The ringtone was the lead song from the movie Lambada.

Just like that, all was right in the world.  Any country whose people could choose that ringtone wouldn’t be all that bad.  All the worries simply disappeared into a self-effacing chuckle, I reminded myself that I’d traveled over 24 hours to get to Damascus airport.  The last couple of miles to the hotel wouldn’t be the point at which I gave up.

Damascus taxis

I walked outside and climbed into one of the cabs on the curb.  “Hotel Semiramis,” I said.  The driver said a whole lot of stuff I didn’t understand and I just shrugged, repeated the name of the hotel and hoped for the best.  He mirrored my shrug and drove off.


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  1. My wife and I enjoy the adventure of travel to foreign countries. It is amazing how adept you become at figuring out how to proceed. Sometimes it is scary, sometime rewarding, but always a growing process.


  2. Absolutely agreed. I have the advantage that I look at home in most of the western or Arab world (I’m dark haired, but not too dark-skinned – typically italian), but even so, it can sometimes get scary. I used to get stopped by soldiers with AK-47s asking for the time or for a light, and that is intense until you realize what they want!


  3. It was actually your intro that set me pondering the most–thinking about how places can change. I’m old, so I remember when Sarajevo hosted the Olympics–and then, not so many years later, descended into civil war. And now, it’s peaceful again. But we can never take peace for granted, not anywhere. . . I hope in not too many years people will be traveling to Syria on business again, and telling stories, with the war a horrible thing of the past.


    1. Yeah, I lived in Europe during the Sarajevo Olympics, and went through the same thought process when the war happened. It was particularly poignant because, by the late 90’s I knew enough history to know that Sarajevo had been chosen for the Olympics as a symbol of peace, because of the city’s role in setting off WWI – sad, indeed, and I hope they can have a long run of peace now.

      I also wish the Syrians would lay down their arms: I have seldom been to a country where people treated me with such amiability and respect. I understand why they are up in arms, but it is deeply saddening to see.


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