Saturday, June 27, 2009

Iran & Syria - Part 8 - Conclusion

When we set up our itinerary for Syria we made a decision to spend more time in Aleppo than Damascus. Given the information we had about the two cities and their environs it seemed like the right choice – at the time. Today, with the advantage of hindsight, we’d do it differently. We had 7 nights to play with and split them 4-3 in favor of Aleppo. If we did it again and could stay at the Old Vine it would be 5-2 Damascus.

One reason Aleppo got my attention was because it was home to several well-reviewed small boutique hotels. They’d been around for about 10 years and looked terrific on paper. At the top of the list were Dar Zamaria Martini and Beit Wakil. I preferred Dar Zamaria because I’d read that the rooms were “significantly more comfortable” than the “plain and boxy” rooms at Beit Wakil. Both were restored 17th and 18th Century houses and featured lovely courtyards.

Alas, I couldn’t get a reservation at Dar Zamaria. I tried multiple Internet sources and the hotel directly, but no luck. Beit Wakil told me that they could accommodate us for our 2nd, 3rd and 4th nights and could put us in a nearby boutique hotel the 1st night. That sounded OK, and I confirmed the rooms.

As promised, the “nearby boutique hotel,” the Dallal, was nearby and it was a boutique hotel. As a step-sister to Beit Wakil I might have guessed that it too would have “plain and boxy” rooms, and I would have been right. Except that “plain and boxy” would have been a generous description. Our room was a tiny, dimly lit box with no decent amenities to brighten the cell-like atmosphere. Really depressing.

Another factor also came into play at this point. While in no way were we hitch hiking and back packing, we had been traveling for more than three weeks, had covered many thousands of miles by plane and car, and this was our 14th hotel. So both physically and mentally we were beginning to run out of gas. It was the time when a little pampering would have made a difference. But we were not going to be pampered at the Dallal. The best we could do was charge up our Kindles and go downstairs to the courtyard and read. Which we did.

The next day when we transferred to Beit Wakil the setting was more upscale, the public spaces were beautiful, and the room was “plain and boxy,” a bit better than the Dallal but not much. Again, we spent time in the courtyard with our Kindles. Beit Wakil is living on its past glory. It is in serious need of upgrading and maintenance.

Maybe the same can be said of Aleppo in general. It could use some upgrading and maintenance. I don’t want to dump on the place unfairly. We didn’t dislike it. We just didn’t find much to get excited about. Inevitably we compared it with Damascus. Not only was there an order of magnitude difference between the Old Vine and Beit Wakil, the areas in which they were located worked against Beit Wakil. The Old Vine is in the middle of a vibrant Old Town. Beit Wakil is in a newer area that lacks the charm we found elsewhere.

An image stays with me. On a walk we took to the Old Town the next day I noticed a row of fruit stores and the roof that covered them. On the roof was an array of large, old, rusted satellite dishes – eight of them. I guess they transmitted pictures to TV sets, but they looked ancient and old fashioned. Needed: Upgrading and maintenance.

People on the streets of Aleppo seemed preoccupied with whatever they were doing. They seemed uninterested in us and everyone else. They weren’t hostile, just not interested. Only once did I experience any hostility. I wanted to take a picture of a man sitting in his outdoor meat shop. He glared at me and said, “No pictures.” He looked like a seriously no-nonsense guy, so I didn’t argue.

Later, two different Aleppans/Aleppites? made the same unsolicited comment about their town. They told us that the people of Aleppo were uneducated and lazy. Since the same exact words were used I can only assume that “uneducated and lazy” is a mantra for those who are dissatisfied with their local environment.

Consistent with our mood, we didn’t try to stay busy in Aleppo. We read, took meandering walks and drank wine at sidewalk cafes while we watched the people and the scene around us.

After our first dinner at an “in” place called Sissi’s (pretentious, overpriced and full of tourists), we had several good meals. We ate dinner twice at Beit Wakil (beautiful space in a courtyard) and once at Dar Zamaria Martini (also a lovely courtyard.) Both restaurants featured oud players and we loved the music. An oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument said to be the predecessor of the lute. We found small places in our neighborhood for lunch. Very low key.

When Nasser deposited us at our hotel at the end of our drive from Hama we said goodbye to him and Fatima. We’d need a car one more time, for a short trip to San Simeon (Qala’at Samaan) and arranged with the hotel for a driver. He turned out to be a bright young guy, Yasir, who was both working full time and going to school.

I thought San Simeon would be my final encounter with old stones on this trip. (I was wrong; there’d be one more.) These are the remains of a church made famous long ago by (surprise!) a guy named Simeon. And therein lies a tale.

Turns out Simeon, born in 392 AD to a shepherd family, opted to live a monastic life. But he found the monastery was insufficiently ascetic so he retreated to a cave. Word got around that he was super-pious, so people began to visit his cave to receive blessings. This didn’t please Simeon. So he built a 3-meter high pillar, out of the touch of people, and took up residence. (Here you have to suspend your disbelief.) The legend goes that as his tolerance of people decreased he built ever-higher pillars, finally reaching a height of 18 meters (59’). With a railing around the top and an iron collar around his neck to keep him from tumbling off in the middle of the night he spent almost 40 years living this way. It is said he preached daily from his perch and answered questions (from men only). After he died in 459 a church was built around his final pillar.

Well, I believe they built a church. And I could tell basilicas were part of it. And that it had a Romanesque façade. As to the rest of the story – I’ll leave that up to you. Ooops, forgot! What about the pillar? Is it still there? Sure, see that boulder? That’s what’s left of the pillar, the rest having been chipped away over the centuries by pilgrims looking for holy souvenirs – or so they say.

We enjoyed our ride out into the countryside. Having driven a lot in both Iran and Syria, I’d say the roads are better in Iran. The traffic is light in both countries. The architecture in towns and on the outskirts is less offensive in Syria. We saw many Bedouins and their sheep in Syria.

Other comparisons: There were more tourists in Syria, mostly from Europe. We never saw a woman in shorts and only a couple of men (in Syria.) The weather was warmer (but not real warm) in Syria. Sandra was struck by how many birds (mostly small ones) she saw everywhere. We saw more CNN and the BBC in Iran. More English was spoken in Iran. Contrary to my usual habit of trying out local languages, I didn’t learn any Farsi or Arabic. I think this was a mistake on my part. I should have made the effort.

On the way back from San Simeon Yasir asked if we’d like to stop at a Roman Temple. “Sure,” we both said, “why not?” My internal conversation had something to do with saying goodbye to old stones – at last.

We left the highway and headed up a hill on a small dirt road. At the top was an absolutely lovely, well-preserved temple from almost two thousand years ago. A Bedouin family was camped nearby. Two Arab gentlemen lounging on the hillside offered us tea. Four teenage boys were the only other visitors. There was a gentle breeze and it was quiet. It was a magical setting. We couldn’t find the temple on any maps or in our books, so we don’t know anything about it. Which doesn’t matter at all. It was wonderful just being there.

On our final day in Aleppo we mostly hung out. We visited an old house that has been turned into a museum. Not very interesting. We filmed a street that amused us, since every shop over several blocks was selling women’s handbags. We returned to a little restaurant where we’d eaten lunch once before. It was on a narrow lane, quiet, no cars allowed, and we sat at a little table outside under a tree. Very laid back. Sandra volunteered that she was really ready to be home. This was the first time in memory that she’d expressed an interest in having one of our foreign adventures come to an end. In discussing it we both agreed that it would have been fine with us had we gone home a couple of days ago. We were tired.

We weren’t looking forward to our schedule for the rest of what would be a very long day. Our plane out of Aleppo was to leave at 3:45 the next morning. Since we needed to be at the airport two hours in advance of the flight, we’d leave the hotel at about 1:30. We decided there was no point in trying to sleep. We’d have a late dinner and sleep on the plane(s) we were about to take.

We had a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul and a connection, also on Turkish Airlines, to Frankfurt. If we were on schedule, which we were, we’d be in Frankfurt for something like six hours and then board a United non-stop to San Francisco. The journey back was uneventful, the best kind. It was 30 hours door-to-door – we were home and soon in our own bed.

Here are our five favorite experiences in Syria. Notice that four of the five are the same for both of us.


1. Being taken to the hotel in Damascus upon arrival

2. Finding Al Dar restaurant the first night & the dinner there

3. The Old Vine Hotel

4. The Shi’a Shrine at the Umayaad Mosque

5. The Museum in Damascus


1. Being taken to the hotel in Damascus upon arrival

2. Finding Al Dar restaurant the first night & the dinner there

3. The Old Vine Hotel

4. The Shi’a Shrine at the Umayaad Mosque

5. The “Welcome” said so warmly when they found out we were Americans

So – that’s the end of the story. But it’s not the end of the conversation. At this point it’s fair to ask – What do I think of it all, especially in light of recent events in Iran? What am I left with?

First off, I am suspicious of instant experts. 16 days in Iran and 9 in Syria do not magically endow me with the expertise to issue profound in-depth judgments. What my experience gave me is a few snapshots, some prisms to look through and think about, not a full-length feature film on the subject. I realize there is much I don’t know and much I wasn’t exposed to.

With that disclaimer/caveat in place, it won’t surprise you to hear that I have a few things to say.

What stands out above all in both Iran and Syria is the humanity of the people. At one level, to call attention to the humanity of people is simplistic and self-evident. Couldn’t I say the same thing about all people in all places? Yes, I could. So let me use what is perhaps a better word to describe what I mean: ‘humaneness.’

It stands out not because Iranians and Syrians are unique human beings. It stands out because it is in stark contrast to the one-dimensional, black and white, demonized face we tend to put on people considered to be our enemies.

One of Sandra’s five top experiences in Syria was being greeted with a warm “Welcome” when people found out we were Americans. It was the same in Iran. Without exception, every article I’d read written by recent American visitors to Iran commented on this phenomenon. So I was not surprised. But when I remembered what friends and family said to us before we left, how concerned they were that we would be greeted with hostility and might be in danger, I realized how at odds the perception is with reality.

A recent series on Jon Stewart’s show made this point brilliantly. They sent one of their ‘reporters,’ Jason Jones, to Iran before the election. While they usually do these reports in front of a screen in the studio, in this case he really went there. I don’t know what they expected to find in Iran, but what they put together demonstrated how our preconceptions are laughably inaccurate.

Where they expected to find hatred they found friendship. Where they expected to find danger they found security. Where they expected to find fear they found loving families and happy children. Admittedly, the recent demonstrations and repression cast a pall on what the Daily Show reported, but they don’t contradict what Jason Jones and we experienced – humaneness.

I notice that it’s easy to get focused on Iran. While Syria is doesn’t get the attention Iran gets we’re very happy we had a chance to go there and would certainly recommend it as a destination. From a tourist point of view there are many treasures to see. Compared to other places in the world it is still relatively inexpensive. The distances aren’t great, so it’s easy to get around.

We had no political conversations in Syria. We didn’t avoid them; they just didn’t come up. It’s obvious that there is a lot of energy on the Palestine issue and it appears that Syria has a role to play in helping to broker a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. That we are going to bolster our presence by sending a U.S. Ambassador back to Damascus (after a four-year absence) is a positive sign.

While Syria and Iran are mutually supportive politically, they are very different countries. In many ways the differences are profound. Syrians are Arabs. Iranians are not. Syria is predominantly Sunni. Iran is Shiite. Iran has a long history filled with past glories. Syria does not. Iran is a large country in a strategically important area. Syria is a small country with a role to play in their neighborhood but is not a major player (or a threat) on the world stage.

Before we decided to go to Syria it wasn’t on my radar screen. Having gone there, I now feel a personal relationship with the place and have positive feelings about the country and its people.

Back to Iran. It would be easy to misinterpret what has been going on since the Iranian election on June 12. The opposition is protesting against voting irregularities, not against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In that sense it is not (yet) a revolution. It may be that over time there will be some fundamental changes in how the country is run. But nothing I saw while I was there and nothing I’ve heard since leads me to think that in the foreseeable future there will be a contextual change in what Iranians want for their country.

If Ahmadinejad were gone tomorrow and replaced by someone thought to be more moderate, the fundamentals would not change. If Ayatollah Khamenei were gone tomorrow and replaced by an Ayatollah thought to be more moderate, the fundamentals would not change.

Based on what I took away from our visit, the fundamentals I’m talking about are:

1. Iran’s attitude toward Israel. As long as there is no resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian dispute and a viable Palestinian state is created, Israel will continue to be Iran’s enemy #1. In the absence of such an agreement, even if there were a new Iranian President who toned down his rhetoric and acknowledged the horror of the Holocaust, both the government and the people of Iran would hold Israel responsible for the problems of the Middle East.

2. Support for a nuclear capacity. Most Iranians would support Iran’s right to develop a nuclear capability. They don’t see this issue in terms of building a bomb but about their rights as an IAEA member to follow the same path other members have followed.

3. Preservation of the Islamic Republic, with emphasis on Islamic. Iranians of all political persuasions support Islam and their Shiite faith. This is true even for those who are less than seriously devout.

4. A disdain toward Arabs. That Iran shares many of the political and social goals of Arab states does not lessen the historical enmity Persians feel toward their ‘second class’ cousins, especially Saudi Arabians.

5. Pride. Iranians are a bit (some would say more than a bit) snobbish. They are extremely proud of their heritage and culture. They love their language, their food and their landscape. They take enormous pride in being hospitable.

6. Commitment to family and children. Every day we saw evidence of how much Iranians love and care for those close to them.

Probably one of the reasons we felt so comfortable and safe in Iran is because the people make a clear distinction between a government and its people. They didn’t hide their negative feelings toward the US Government, at least under Bush, but they didn’t blame us. Quite the reverse. They know that they are not necessarily representative of their government. They represent themselves. And that’s how they saw us.

They were very positive about Obama. They accepted the premise that he offered hope for a new and better day. They seemed to relish the idea that they could be friends with the United States – government as well as people.

It’s not likely I would have made this trip without years of gentle prodding on the part of the Lovely Ms. Marsh. I was interested enough to put it on our “To Go” list, but not interested enough to make it a “Must Go.” Sandra was passionate about it. I’m glad she persisted. I now feel a kinship with and compassion for the people of Iran. I’m concerned about them and confident that in the end they’ll be able to take care of themselves.

I hope you have a chance to visit Iran someday. But maybe you should wait a little while before you go.


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