Last weekend, following a three-day ceasefire agreement reached during the Syria peace talks in Geneva the previous week, the UN evacuated some 700 Syrians from Homs’ old quarter, a rebel-held area besieged by Syrian government forces for some 18 months. A further 300 people were able to leave a few days later.
Sadly, as they fled, their convoys were hit by mortars and fired upon by snipers. Most of those allowed out were the elderly, women and children, however, it’s been reported over a dozen of the men permitted to leave were later detained. Around 3,000 civilians apparently remain, mostly men and boys.
When I look at images like these from the Homs evacuation, I often wonder if the people we met in Homs, and other places in Syria, however briefly, are in those pictures. Are they still there in Homs, did they manage to escape, or are they, sadly, dead? I like to remember what they were like when we met them, when they were happy. It better helps me appreciate the immensity of this tragedy.
We’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts on Grantourismo to remembering Syria and Syrians before the war. This is the first…
Remembering Syria and Syrians Before the Civil War
The last time we were in Homs was the summer of 2007, although we were in Syria in late 2009 working on stories, mainly in Damascus and Aleppo. We stayed in Homs for a whirlwind couple of days during a road trip around the country updating our Lonely Planet Syria and Lebanon guidebook, a book we first researched and wrote in 2004 after reluctantly being directed by our editor to combine, restructure and rewrite the manuscripts of two earlier independent country guides, Syria and Lebanon.
When we returned to do the 2007 update of our book we hid the cover from the Syrians and Lebanese we met. Syria had only just pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005 after a 29-year occupation. There had been a strong Syrian military presence throughout Lebanon when we first visited the country from our home in Abu Dhabi for a five-day break for New Year’s Eve in 1998.
The mood of both countries in 1998 was vastly different to the optimism and confidence we would encounter a decade later.
When we arrived in Homs that summer’s afternoon in 2007, we found a lovely city enjoying the sunshine and clear blue skies. I remember the light had that clarity that it does in the countryside, with none of the smog of Damascus, where we’d been. It didn’t feel like Syria’s third largest city, it felt like a big country town and the people were warm and friendly, and generous with their smiles, like country people are.
Locals were kicking back with their syrupy coffees and glasses of tea in al fresco coffee shops, such as the shady garden café Majmu ar-Rawda as-Siyahi, in the park near the clock tower. It was the place to be after dark when the aromas of rose, apple, strawberry, and grape sheesha wafted through the air.
Syrians were lining up for big glasses of fresh juices made to order from the fruit juice stands. People were strolling leafy parks, arm in arm, licking ice creams. In the early evening they crowded around mobile street food vendors to buy hot cobs of corn.
In the Christian quarter, at Blue Stone, a stylish café in a handsome grey stone building that had large picture windows looking onto the street — about which I scribbled in my notebook “a perfect spot for people-watching” — every table was taken.
Families were sharing massive pizzas. Perfectly-coiffed old ladies with pearl necklaces were nibbling at big bowls of salads. Demure young couples (the women with headscarves, the men with slicked back hair) were holding hands discretely. Groups of teenagers in school uniforms, boys and girls at separate tables, flirted with each-other openly across the room.
It had been a long hot drive to Homs, with a few hectic stops on the way to check details for the book, so we were pleased we were able to order drinks: Terence had an icy cold beer and I had a chilled glass of white wine, something that was rare to do in Syria during the day back then, even in Damascus. Although things would change by 2009 when the restaurant and bar scene in Damascus was buzzing.
After lunch, we began the task of pounding the pavement and ‘ticking shit off’, as we called it. The work involved visiting every listing in the previous edition of our book to see what was still there and was worth maintaining, crossing out what was not, and noting down details as to what was new that we should add to the next edition.
There had been a lot of renovation in the old quarter and much construction was underway. The striking black and white Mamluk-style banded stonework that distinguished many of the buildings in the old quarter, along with the courtyard of the Khaled ibn al Walid Mosque, had been scrubbed cleaned.
When we stopped at the handsome Mamluk-era residence, Azze Hrawe, which was being restored and was to re-open as a folklore museum, workers invited us in to take a look. In the splendid liwan, a covered lounge area off the beautiful fountain courtyard, craftsman had just finished work on an intricately carved wooden niche and it was exquisite.
Homs was a city where artisans still practiced their crafts and you could find them in the renovated old stone souq, one of Syria’s most enchanting, working under the vaulted ceilings. Wood carvers, metalworkers, carpenters, tailors, knife-sharpeners, and cobblers sat cross-legged on their workshop floors, smiling contentedly as they worked, and happy to have us watch and take photos.
While the market was quiet in the afternoon, when many of the shopkeepers closed for lunch, it hummed later that evening when the whole of Homs seemed to be out shopping.
Hand in hand with the rejuvenation of the city, there was that sense of optimism that we’d also found in Damascus.
The hotels were busy with bus groups on their grand tours of Syria’s impressive archaeological sites. In the evening French, German and Italian tourists could be found bartering for mother-of-pearl inlaid backgammon sets, sheesha pipes, gold jewellery, and packets of spices.
Unlike Hama and Deir ez Zur, where I had never felt comfortable (those were the only cities in Syria where we detected tension), Homs, like the rest of Syria, was a city where I felt completely relaxed. Had we have not been working and we had all the time in the world, we would have stayed and lingered longer.
The images that came out of Homs on the weekend and earlier this week of the city and its citizens, were all the more heartbreaking because we couldn’t recognise them, not the place nor the people.
There were no smiles to be seen. The people of Homs looked haggard, exhausted, and worn-down by their horrific situation. The elderly looked frail, and the children, dark circles under their eyes, looked malnourished. Everybody looked tense, stressed.
These are very different Syrians to the ones we used to know. Before the civil war, when we visited on research trips, and before our guidebook writing days began when we went to Syria on holidays, we used to say that Syrians were some of the friendliest and happiest people in the world.
News reports claimed that people in Homs had been surviving on grass and weeds. Others on foodstuffs left from before that 18 month siege that they had found in the city. Those days of eating pizza, ice cream and sweet corn on the cob on summer evenings must be memories so distant that they feel like dreams.
Homs itself has been completely destroyed. The elegant cream-brick apartment buildings that lined the broad boulevards aren’t merely pockmarked from bullets as most buildings were in Lebanon after the civil war there.
In Homs, buildings are missing balconies, windows, walls, and whole floors. Many have collapsed upon each other. I hate to think how many deaths there were, how many lives were destroyed, when those buildings came crashing down.
The attractive old quarter we fondly remember is in ruins, mosque minarets missing or broken, mountains of rubble piled in places where historic buildings had been, many that had just been restored a few years earlier, for the first time in hundreds of years.
I wonder what state the Church of the Girdle of Our Lady is in and if the patriarch managed to escape with the treasured piece of wool that they believed to be from a girdle worn by the Virgin Mary. But mostly, I wonder what has become of all the people, from the food vendors to the builders, from the flirty school kids at Blue Stone to the smiling artisans in the souq. I wonder where and how they are.
As Terence said in his last Monday Memories post, “The scars so visible at Syria’s historic sites — those that still stand — can never compare to the collective mental scars of the nation and its people.”
As impossible as the job of rebuilding seems right now, cities have been rebuilt before, especially in Syria. Remember the Crusades?
Rebuilding lives is the most challenging task for the Syrians who have left the country now, especially for those who have lost families and friends, and those who had to leave them behind, as almost every Syrian must have. For the people of Homs who have left, their lives will be on hold until they’re reunited with the loved ones forced to stay behind.
I can’t imagine them smiling much. And yet what I most remember from that road trip around Syria, and our other visits, from the first to the last, are the warm smiles of the people we met. Sometimes those smiles were fleeting, like the young man on the donkey above whom we met in the middle of the desert. But that’s another story…
If you have stories or memories of Syria, please do share them in the comments. For more on the civil war there is comprehensive coverage on the BBC under ‘Syria Conflict‘, and under ‘Syria Crisis‘ on the New York Times. Wikipedia has Syria timelines explaining how the situation deteriorated from sporadic uprisings to full blown civil war. Our next post is on Syria’s Last Storyteller Abu Shady.