Population: 17 million
Population Growth Rate: 3.4%
Head of State: President Hafez al-Assad
Official Language: Arabic
Currency: Syrian Pound
Lonely Planet(written before the current U.S. sanctions were introduced):
‘Many visitors find the Syrian people among the most hospitable in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter. Syria has long been run by a hardline and not entirely benevolent regime but its participation on the Allied side in the Gulf War and tentative moves towards peace with Israel, along with a relaxation in internal political and economic strictures, have softened the country’s image. Nevertheless, the perception of Syria in the West still is one of a place full of terrorists (freedom fighters?) and other nasties; the truth is that most travellers leave Syria with nothing but good feelings – its that sort of place’
Notes from a Misunderstood Nation State:
98% of the Syrian people are friendly and hospitable. Hanging over streets filled with yellow taxis and minibuses, on barber shop, bank and post office walls, even in buses, are pictures of al-Assad and his father, the former President of Syria, now deceased. Occasionally one can observe the visage of al-Assad’s older brother, natural successor to his father – who died mysteriously in a plane crash not long before his younger brother took over – hanging surreptitiously in offices and cloakrooms and even in living rooms. Yet despite Syria being ‘staunchly’ Muslim, it is important to bear in mind that Islam, despite pressure from many quarters, is not recognised as the State Religion. Jewish quarters and Christian quarters still exist in the two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus. During Christmas in these areas, windows are filled with Christmas trees and decorations hang over often narrow, often cobbled, streets.
I observed a Christmas service in a Syrian Orthodox church in the Christian/Jewish quarter of Damascus – not far from where St. Paul was lowered from a tower in a basket whilst escaping from the Jews – and was welcomed warmly by the priest in Arabic. In these areas, women walk without headscarfs. In the Meditterranean coastal city centres in particular the feeling is that one is almost in the West. Almost but not quite/white. Young people carry mobile phones and groups of men and women people coffee houses donned in Levis and long-sleeved T-Shirts. In one such coastal town (Lattakia; a key Meditteranean port) I was strolling the grounds of a Catholic church when a ‘Christian’ Syrian – an elderly lady who tended the church garden and who was also keen to show me the church nativity and how the area surrounding the Roman Catholic church was being used as an animal hospital and playground for Syrian children – I was ushered into the presence of an aging Italian priest engulfed in a wood carving of the knights of the crusade. He spoke little but was warm and friendly like the rest of the townsfolk. Indeed, the whole place seemed peaceful and open.
In most cities it is also possible to acquire alcohol and there is even Syrian beer and a spirit not unlike ouzo/raki available and brewed in Syria called, ‘Arak’. Indeed wealthy locals can be seen furtively drinking in first floor restaurants or more openly in the aforementioned Christian areas which I wandered home from swaying noticeably on more than one occasion.
In the border town of Abu-Kamal, a gateway to Iraq, I was given free food by one local and was offered tea by another: such offers of hospitality are considered an insult to refuse. Everywhere one travels one cannot escape the phrase repeated endlessly without an accompanying loss of meaning or lapse into cliche, the phrase, ‘You are welcome…welcome to my country, welcome to Syria’. This was the greeting we recieved in this lively but run down outpost on the edge of the Arabian desert.
A complicated set of customs are involved in being invited to a tea house, such as only sitting down when your host sits down and not taking advantage of your host’s hospitality by ordering something really expensive from the menu. That said, we talked openly about subjects such as Israel and Iraq for over an hour, despite my host’s broken English. After this we were picked up by a local civil service worker and invited to his home to eat with his family. In the centre of their living room was an oil stove and in a corner of the room was the ubiquitous T.V. set displaying images which the family had trouble ignoring whilst we were there. Nevertheless, th