Back in 1998, I traveled through Syria — Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Palmyra, Maaloula — with a couple friends also living in Ankara, Turkey at the time. It was an amazing trip, of course, entering that “scary” country as an American. But I plowed right in, perhaps a little naive, but thankfully so. My friends were a Frenchman and a Turkish woman, so I was the token Americano. And how was I received? Almost without exception with incredible interest and friendliness. People invited us in for tea… at 1 am when we arrived in Palmyra with their son in a minibus. We got more homestay offers than we could accept (and one which we shouldn’t have accepted – the only not-so-great story but one that ended well) and we were always met with smiles. I’m pulling many of these stories together into an ebook about my travels in Egypt and Syria that year.
But then the situation in Syria became dire as we all know. Over a million have registered as refugees and estimates are already over 70,000 have been killed in the violence. Mentions of places like Homs and Aleppo, which used to make me chuckle a bit thanks to a couple of funny stories, now make me cringe. If it’s on TV these days, it’s because something awful has happened again. A lot of media attention is being paid to the children — as should always be the case in matters of war, in my opinion — and as I go back over my photos from that trip — actual printed photos from a film camera — I realize that children followed us wherever we went. As you’ll see from their faces, some of them could blend in anywhere else in the world, certainly in America, and yet we three stood out to them as foreigners. (It’s the way you walk, a Turkish friend once told me.)
All of the kids pictured here would be 20-something by now. One wonders what became of them and their families. Were their homes destroyed? Their town? Are they refugees now? Fighting on one side or the other? I saw the endless rows of photos of children at the awful Tuol Sleng S-21 Genocide Museum in Cambodia and we know every one of them was killed, perhaps even before the film was developed. These kids likely made it through to adulthood. But what of their own kids? Just to see these children’s faces should be enough of a case against war.
Children crowd around me for a photo inside the courtyard of a mosque in Aleppo.
Around the world most kids work at a young age, something we tend to forget was a thing of the past in the West.
Boys carrying pans of baked goods to (or from) the oven down the street.
A boy with green eyes to match his sweater.
Two buddies (and I believe, brothers!) pose on the road outside the oasis city of Palmyra. The one on the right had a gold tooth that caught the sun when he laughed.
This girl sat on a stoop, bent over her notebook writing something, perhaps her homework. Kids played around her but she was so wrapped up in the writing, and so serious. I tried to capture that before anyone noticed me. Fat chance. The laughter started and the smiles came out and the notebook was temporarily forgotten.
I spy three foreigners in our street.
Curious and uninhibited the children came running to us as soon as they saw us. The usual “hello” and “tank you” and “what country?”
I have no idea what a bunch of kids were doing with a pot of foul (beans) in the street. A picnic? The Syrian version of a lemonade stand? Clearly at least one of them preferred a popsicle.
Bring out a hand-powered Ferris wheel and let the giggling begin. In our world of video games, internet and cable TV, it is important to remember the simpler pleasures and that pure joy needs no batteries or WiFi. A bit of imagination and a blue sky overhead is sufficient.
The Yogurt Man Goeth: Travels in Egypt and Syria may be available by the end of 2013. If you are interested in receiving an update when this book becomes available, please leave a comment below or send an email to revtravel < at> yahoo <dot> com with the words “Egypt/Syria book” in the subject. (I will not be gathering these emails for any purpose other than notifications about the book when it’s ready.)