Yalla Syria: Memory of a Country
It was 2006 and I was enrolled in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Rome. Grappling with the pre-Islamic Jahilliya, the Hegira of Muhammad in 622, the five pillars of Islam, the Shari’a and the Islamic law and the Umayyad caliphate, I decided to go to learn about Syria. Damascus is one of the most important cultural and religious centers of the entire Islamic world. So I decided to leave for the city in which Saladin died.
Many told me: ” But where are you going? To Syria? It’s dangerous! There are Muslims over there, you have to be careful! And what are you going to do there? ” I wondered why they were all so convinced of what they were saying, even though they had never seen even a picture of what Syria was. We live in a westernized world and this adjective carries the prejudice of an unjustified form of superiority or otherwise of progress and civilization, prejudice that in many is a belief rather than a wanton and debatable assumption. Who gives us this security, since when many have never even read a book on Islamic history, or picked up a Koran? Probably the media, and in 2005, 4 years after the attack on the Twin Towers, I must say that the fear spread by the media was still palpable in the air, especially in a country like Italy that it’s always been a victim of television.
The first thing they told me as soon as I set foot in Damascus was: ” Please do not ever pronounce the name of the President. There are intelligence agencies in the city and sometimes, because of fear or the code of silence, the locals to hand you over to the police. Here we cannot speak of Bashar al-Assad; we are likely to be taken to jail just for saying his name. ” The monster was therefore a president and dictator who came to power in 2000, then still 34 (the minimum age to become president was actually 40 years), designated successor by his father Hafiz, who himself had come to power in a coup in 1970.
I arrived in Damascus when it was dark. I slept on a carpet at a friend’s house. I took to the streets in the morning and was attacked by a mix of horns, colors and voices. These are the trips that change you totally, the ones when you meet a world and, looking at it, you wonder, “Where am I?”
I lived in a typical Arabian house, with a beautiful courtyard inside, accompanied by a Syrian, two Americans, and two Australians. I was surprised by how many students were attracted just like me to a country whose name was not so well-known. Unlike today, when it is on everyone’s lips, unfortunately for a tragic reason: war.
It seemed light years away from such a word, in that city where the historic center felt more like a small town.
The University of Damascus had many foreign students.
Many instead preferred to study in the mosques where, for a great many years, Classical Arabic has been taught to both future imams and students.
The imam calls the faithful to pray five times a day and does it from the top of the minarets of several mosques there. I was enchanted the first time I heard the call: the various voices chase each other through the streets and float in the air with echoes that reach every corner of the city. Everything stops for a while, some shops close to pray and it was possible to feel a particular positivity in the air. As if time had stopped many years ago. I felt that I was carried by that voice to a time that was not the present; I thought at the charm of a culture that had its roots in the past and had no real intention of changing even going on with the years.
I felt the religion alive in Damascus and I was surprised to note that Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Catholic and Orthodox Christians managed to coexist peacefully. Bashar was able to get support for this, while guaranteeing freedom of worship. Now he prefers to base his ideas on the old Roman maxim “divide et impera”. What better way to control as many people as possible than to play them off against each other? But I do remember the Syrian people being so cohesive and united, beyond the religious beliefs, living in a peaceful coexistence.
At about 250 kilometers north-east of Damascus there is Palmyra, the so-called “Bride of the Desert”, city of Roman ruins and Queen Zenobia, expanses of sand interrupted by shadows of towering columns of the second century AD. A Bedouin let me up on a camel and with the hard-techno from my mp3 player in my ears, I rode the dunes through history at 180 bpm.
Another Bedouin asked for my hand. He took me on the back of his black horse to his oasis: an irrigation system that was so branched it succeeded in reaching each plant and made the area lush, allowing us to enjoy the cool while we were drinking tea. He asked me to wear the typical dress of a bride of the desert. I tried it on: it fit like a glove but, thanking him, I refused his offer of marriage.
The smell of Aleppo soap is the one that I remember, from the famous covered souk in the city – one of the oldest markets in the world, decreed in 1986 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, now destroyed by fire during the fighting. The walls do not smell anymore of soap, but of blood and smoke.
Returning one evening to Damascus, some friends took me to the mountain Qassioun, the highest point of the city. The green lights of the mosques and blue ones of the churches dotted the expanse of houses and co-existed in a multitude of colors that the one without the other would lose their beauty and brightness.
This is what I remember of my Syria, this is what I want to remember. Lights that illuminate the sky, now crossed by the smoke of the explosions, in the nights of those who cannot remember how much more serenity was possible to breath in the air in front of that landscape, smoking a narghile, drinking Syrian arak and reciting the verses of a poem of Nizar Qabbani:
What does that luminous disc do/ To my homeland?/ The land of prophets/The land of simple hearts/ Tobacco chewers and opium lords./ What does the moon do to us?/ That we forsake our pride/ And live only beseeching heaven. / What does heaven have/ For slothful drones and lounging loons?/ Who turn to walking dead/ In the moonlight/ Wailing at the graves of long-dead saints.