Middle Eastern travel presents one hazard few foreigners are aware of—the risk of becoming a hospitality hostage. And nowhere is the threat more serious than in Syria.
In the typical scenario, the foreigner is approached by a lone Syrian. Conversation leads to an offer of accommodation. Polite refusal merely causes the offer to be repeated, until eventually resistance breaks down. The foreigner is then led to the house of a Syrian family, to be plied with plates of rice, tabbouleh, hummus, grilled lamb, and honey-soaked sweets. One tourist I know, an American, was reading in a Damascus park when a man approached and, after an hour’s conversation, insisted the tourist move in to his house. The man even brought his car to the American’s hotel and carried his bags for him.
I myself recently became a hospitality hostage in Syria. The first rule of Syrian hospitality is that it can be offered anytime and anywhere. I was sitting in the first-class coach of the Latakia–Aleppo train, the only foreigner in the car, when a man standing in the aisle spotted me. He reached into a paper bag and handed me a tiny guava. A handful of pistachios followed. Then came baby apricots and dried figs, and finally a cup of mint tea.
His name was Hakim. He was a heavyset man with a bright smile, and he ran a business transporting cars between Turkey and Iraq. Many of the Iraqis fleeing the war were professionals from the moneyed classes, and they left behind a transport vacuum...