I was an ugly American walking alone in a crowded Middle Eastern city, but I was not afraid. My main concern that night was finding a phone booth that would take my prepaid phone card. I never found one.
During my search, I bumped into a tour guide who was leading a group of Japanese from our hotel to tourist attractions in the city. I tagged along for a while.
We strolled the alleyways as the guide described places, explaining in English while the Japanese photographed everything and everyone, including me.
When we stopped in front of a bath house, a hairy-chested, bearded Arab wearing nothing but a towel around his waist stepped into the doorway and posed, sucking in his stomach and smiling proudly.
One of the Japanese women smiled back and said sweetly, “Very nice.”
The year was 2006. The place was Hama, Syria.
Oh, what a difference six years can make.
Today, the central Hama province is still reeling from a massacre by Syrian government forces of at least 78 people, including many women and children. They had been shot, garroted, stabbed and in some cases burned alive. Government troops fired upon unarmed United Nations monitors seeking to investigate the massacre. Thousands have been killed under the leadership of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
So, need I say that revisiting Syria is not on my bucket list? But, back in 2006, after touring six countries, I decided that the people of Syria were the friendliest.
Everywhere we went there, people would throw up their hands and yell, “Welcome, welcome.” Early in the trip, I was walking through a Damascus souq — an open-air market where vendors sell a little of everything — when a Syrian man stopped me and asked why I was in his country.
“I’m touring your country,” I said. (Actually, I was one of about 40 Americans — 30 seminary students and 10 lay people — taking part in the Middle East Travel Seminar. The centerpiece of the program is a three-week trip through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Sinai in Egypt, Israel and Greece.)
“Are you going to Hama?” the man asked.
“Yes,” I said, “I believe we are.”
He told me his name was Hamas, and he lived in Hama. He wrote his phone number on my notepad and said, “When you get to Hama, call me if I can help you in any way.” I had one of his friends photograph us together, and we went our separate ways.
So what’s going on here? Syria certainly is not a friend of the United States, but almost everybody I met there couldn’t have been nicer.
The short, simplistic answer is this: The whole mess is caused by evil people in government, not average people on the street. The people on the street — not just in Syria, but in other countries — often are the victims.
Will peace ever come to the Middle East? God only knows. All I know is my soul aches for the people on the street.