Monday, June 06, 2011


I have been following recent events in Syria closely and with concern. Two years ago we were there and had a wonderful visit. At that time Bashar al-Assad seemed to be leading his country beyond its history of repression and intimidation, the hallmark of his father’s reign. As visitors, we felt welcome and secure. We were able to explore Syria’s rich cultural and archaeological treasures at our leisure. And we had an opportunity to interact freely with average people everywhere we went.

I have been wondering when the protests would erupt in places we visited. It happened Friday in Hama. A reported 150,000 people staged a peaceful march and were met with bullets and clubs. Dozens died. Hundreds were injured. I went on UTube to watch videos of the carnage and to see if I could recognize any of the streets or buildings. Nothing was familiar.

Hama has a special history. In Hama, in 1982, between 10,000 and 20,000 residents died when Hafez al-Assad confronted and brutally put down an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. Large sections of the city were destroyed. Evidence of the slaughter is still there. We drove through unoccupied neighborhoods in the Old Town, where damaged structures and vacant land offer mute testimony to what Hama was like when the fighting ended.

From our hotel window we had a wonderful view of a different claim to fame for Hama – its norias. These are centuries-old wooden water wheels, some of which are 65’ in diameter. The Orontes River, which flows through Hama, is lower than the surrounding land, so the norias were needed to scoop up water and channel it for irrigation. Even though modern water management systems are now available, some of these ancient norias are still in use.

Not all of the Old Town was destroyed. We spent time walking through what remains. It is lovely – pleasant and laid back. A key attraction is the Azem Palace, an 18th Century Ottoman home. We passed many women covered head-to-toe (including a face veil) in black. One stands out. Clearly young and perky, as she passed Sandra she surprised us with a clear “hello.” And then she was gone. We went to an old mosque. Small, quiet, little decoration, and a very nice feel to it. We went to the Christian Quarter to buy wine.

We had a car and driver, Nasser, who we hired in Damascus to take us to Aleppo, with stops in Palmyra, Hama and other places of interest. It turns out that Nasser’s wife, Fatima, is from Hama and was visiting her family. She joined us the next day for our drive to Aleppo. We also met their son, who was staying in Hama with his grandparents.

I think of these people and hope they are OK. The news is filled with stories of protests, seemingly everywhere. Sometimes they are more than remote, impersonal events. So it is with me and Hama.


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