Kidnapped By Syrian Hospitality
If you ever want to scare your family, horrify your friends, and alarm random strangers, here’s an idea: Tell them you’re planning a trip to the Middle East.
And if you want to discover how off-base their reactions are, you should actually go.
That’s what my wife, Charlotte, and I did this last summer, when we decided to spend seven weeks in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. The announcement of our intentions was met with shrieks and stern advice not to go. We figured it would be the trip of our lives, but somehow they all decided it would be the last trip of our lives. Precise reactions varied, but the general sentiment was identical:
“Aren’t they all terrorists over there?”
“You’ll be kidnapped.”
“They hate Americans. Tell them you’re Canadian.”
“Nice knowin’ ya.”
Back in June, about two months before the trip, we were capable of laughing off such comments. Terrorists and kidnappers? What about the U.S. highway fatality rate, or all those murders in Los Angeles? These people were just paranoid, and that was their loss. They’d never see the Roman ruins of Syria, the splendid facades of Petra, or the Pyramids.
But as our departure date drew closer, we began to notice subtle changes in the way we anticipated the trip. The bombardment of propaganda we had suffered had begun seeping into our subconscious. Rather than losing ourselves in orgy of excited planning, we were becoming more and more concerned with what we shouldn’t do.
Our itinerary for Egypt was thin because ever-changing safety situations meant we might have to travel in armed caravans. The eastern part of Syria looked off-limits – too close to Iraq. And what about southern Lebanon? Were the ruins of Tyre safe from Hezbollah-Israeli clashes?
By the time we left for Istanbul, our seven-week fantasy getaway was looking more like an excruciatingly difficult obstacle course. Then, less than a week into our trip, a series of bombs exploded in three Istanbul hotels. That settled it: We had made a mistake.
We didn’t give up – we’d blown too much money on airfare for that – but we did retreat into our shells. Every passerby was a suspect, and each gesture of kindness was a carefully plotted trap.
Avoiding the locals might sound like a simple task, but in the Middle East, where kindness to travelers is one of society’s golden rules, withdrawal requires the utmost vigilance. It also makes you feel like a deviant, if only because hospitality flows so freely. Perhaps the number one dilemma of scared Americans in the Middle East today is figuring out how to be simultaneously gracious and guarded.
When a merchant in Aleppo refused to let me pay for a pound of olives, I was sure the food was poisoned. When a random man in Syria offered to walk a mile in order to show us the way to the bus station, I just knew he was leading us to a secret terrorist den. And when a glass shop owner invited us for coffee after we merely asked him for directions, well, let’s just say I took note of each mirror shard within reach.
But after a week of such defensive posturing – and no negative incidents – I couldn’t help but wonder: Could it be possible that these people really were just generous? It took a little episode in Lattakia, Syria, for me to confirm that the answer was a resounding yes.
One afternoon, after a particularly sweaty day of sightseeing, Charlotte and I retreated to a small sidewalk cafï¿½ near our hotel. We ordered a sheesha and some coffee, and settled in to play cards.
Thirty minutes later, we were interrupted by a familiar call:
“Where are you from?”
I turned to see a somewhat disheveled man in his thirties, sitting alone at the table behind us.
Surely a terrorist. I wanted to answer “Canada,” but “America” slipped out. To my surprise, he seemed genuinely thrilled to meet me.
“Governments and people are not the same thing,” he later told us.
Our new friend’s name was Sammir. He was a Latakia native, and possessed a New Yorker’s certainty that his city was simply unbeatable. When we asked him to recommend some places to see in Syria, all he could manage was: “Lattakia is the best.”
We made small talk for the next hour, interrupted only by Sammir’s random gestures of hospitality. When a vendor passed by selling sous, a cold licorice drink, he insisted that he treat us to some. When we wanted more coffee, he hailed the waiter. And when our bill came, he wouldn’t even consider letting us pay.
Even for Syria, his kindness was extreme. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Where was all this going? We got our answer as we rose to leave.
“Would you like to come to my house to have dinner? You can meet my wife.”
The casual setting of the past hour had forced me to let my guard down. But this invitation catapulted my thoughts back to the warnings we had received at home. Charlotte and I exchanged alarmed looks. We couldn’t go, yet how could we refuse?
We settled on a compromise. We all agreed to meet at the same cafï¿½ at 8 p.m. that night. That way, Charlotte and I could think it over. If we were lucky, Sammir might not even show.
We spent the remainder of the day battling the butterflies in our stomach. Should we e-mail our families to let them know where we’d be? Maybe we should tell the hotel? Or perhaps just hide in our room? Then again, what if our suspicions were wrong?
In the end, politeness dictated that we must go. At 8 p.m. we were at the appointed meeting place.
Fifteen minutes later, we spotted Sammir sitting at a table with four other men ï¿½ suspicious, each one.
We watched nervously as Sammir chatted with the men.
They appeared to be talking business, perhaps discussing where they would take us once we were bound and gagged. The thought of leaving once more crossed my mind, but it barely had time to percolate before Sammir rose. He shook hands with his friends and began walking our way.
“Come on, let’s get a taxi,” he said.
Whew, a close call.
After fifteen minutes, we arrived not at Sammir’s home, but at a tailor’s shop. Inside, we found his wife and two friends waiting for us, sewing, chatting about a dress they were working on, and drinking tea. Not exactly a terrorist’s den.
The innocuousness of the situation made our prior hesitation seem absurd. The women didn’t speak a word of English, but that didn’t stop them from playing charades and teaching us a bit of Arabic.
Their questions were endless. They wanted to know our religion, how my wife and I met, how many kids we were planning to have, what we thought of Syria.
These ladies scarcely fit the typical Western view of Muslim women. They wore tight jeans and revealing tops, not veils. They ordered Sammir around like he was a child, demanding he change out of his work clothes before dinner and ordering him upstairs to fetch coffee. And when it came down to actually eating, the ladies informed us that they wouldn’t be joining us. They had other plans. Sorry.
We ended up at a nice restaurant by the seaside, eating a feast of grilled meats, a dozen mezze, and the potent anise drink arak (when I asked him if it was OK for him to partake, he replied coyly, “Only good Muslims drink.”). When it was all over, Sammir paid, drove us to our hotel, and thanked us for our company.
That was it.
“Wasn’t he supposed to kidnap us or something?” I remarked to Charlotte.
I guess that’s what we expected. But never once could we point to one tangible reason to have such a concern. Nothing, that is, aside from our own ignorance and, dare I say, brainwashing.
In America, we toss around a lot of labels concerning the inhabitants of countries like Syria – and I’ve heard charges of ignorance and brainwashing more than once. There may be a morsel of truth in that statement, but we personally learned that misinformation is at least a two way street.
We felt an immense wave of relief after returning from dinner with Sammir, and it wasn’t related to the fact that we weren’t kidnapped. It was more personal: If we had listened to the warnings back home, we would have never gone with him. We also would have ignored one of the most rewarding facets Middle Eastern travel: The people.