Monday, May 17, 2010

Welcome to the Middle East

Welcome. Welcome. Welcome.

The man in army fatigues had looked through every last page of my passport and examined each stamp in detail before adding a Lebanon stamp to my frayed passport. We had just arrived at the Beirut Airport from Sri Lanka. I was immediately struck by all the white people and how most of them seem to be smoking as they line up for Customs. The immigration official looked me in the eye, paused to hand me back my passport and said "Welcome to Lebanon" in such a thoughtful way it sent chills up my spine. Leaving immigration, I asked Mark if he too had received a meaningful Welcome to Lebanon and he said that he had.

Maya's cousin Omar met us in the airport and ushered into his car. He pointed out key buildings as we headed towards the hotel he had helped us to book. A long the way we stopped for an amazing schwarma sandwich that slit the throat of any ideas I had had about vegetarianism back in India.

"Are you afraid?" asked the hotel manager with a ghoulish smile as I handed him my passport when we arrived. Remember, I thought to myself, 'they can kill you but they can never take your soul.' It was a line I had heard on the TV show "Jailed Abroad", a show about foreigners who end up in captivity somewhere with dirty floors, hostile inmates and no flush toilets, usually for drug smuggling. This line came from an episode in which two journalist were captured by some terrorist group somewhere. One was an ex-marine who gave this shred of advice to the other journalist when it looked like they would both be killed. Whenever we have cable in a hotel room we try to watch the show. The show makes us feel pretty smug and superior-- we have dirty floors and no flush toilets because we are cheap.

"What should I be afraid of?" I asked the hotel manager, trying to sound very very casual.
"You have an American passport. I could sell this, you know."
"Then can I trade it for this free city map?" I took one of his city maps from the desk.
The hotel manager smiled and nodded and soon all three of us were sitting and drinking coffee until 11:30 pm. We spent the next afternoon smoking a nargila (water tobacco pipe) with him in a parking space ac cross from the hotel.

The kindness and hospitality we have encountered so far in Lebanon and Syria has been shocking.

"I think the rule in the Middle East is just to say yes" Mark said thoughtfully as we were strolling through Aleppo's old souk. Aleppo is Syria's second city and vies for the title of longest inhabited place on earth. The souk is a labyrinth of tunnels lined with neatly kept shops. While old and attractive, most of these shops are still geared to locals rather than tourists, which is make the whole thing feel even more authentic. Mark is talking about the frequent invitations we as foreigner receive here. A one minute conversation with a man in a small desert oasis town leads to an invitation to breakfast in his work place. Yes to a group of old men sitting by the side of the road in Lebanon yields us a ride back to our rental car after hours of hiking in the wrong direction. Yes to a man sitting at the next table in a cafe along the Euphrates finds us in the back of a luxury sedan with his brother. We cruised the riverside and tour town with music blaring before being thoughtfully deposited at our hotel.

Sometimes, hospitality isn't really a question at all. Palmyra is an ancient set of ruins of an oasis town in the middle of the desert. You can probably see to the Iraqi border from here although all there is to see beyond this town is a large expanse of desert. From the citadel we wandered down the hill of small rocks and dried grass to a small valley of roman tombs in the shape of three story towers. A man sitting with a group of people in the shade of a van yelled and beckoned us over. We were quickly ushered to sit down with them and drink some tea as they guessed at out nationality and introduced the family. Sometimes accepting hospitality here doesn't feel like a choice but these two tired travelers are happy to sit down and drink some tea.

Mark and Juliah

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