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 that Hakim, with his fleet of Toyotas, Hyundais, and Volkswagens, was only too glad to fill. Twice a week he traveled to the port of Latakia with a team of employees to look in on his clients. I asked him if he had any trouble dealing with the American military.
“No, no, no,” he said, wagging his head. “They’ve been good. Very good.”
Hakim invited me up to the café car, where we sat on seats covered in tattered blue satin, surrounded by dense clouds of cigarette smoke and men sipping Arabic coffee. When he asked what perceptions I had formed of Syria, I told him I’d been surprised to discover so much early Christian history—thousand-year-old crusader castles, ruins of Byzantine churches—alongside the leftovers of earlier civilizations, Ottoman, Babylonian, Hittite, Palmyran, Assyrian. Hakim beamed, proud of the human history that had been written across his land. “We are all brothers,” he said. “Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus—we are all part of the human family.”
“You think that’s true even today?” I asked. I said it sometimes looked to me as if the human family was coming apart.
He replied stoically. “People have their differences, but family is still family.” Seeing that my cup was empty, he ordered another tea. “So, you are staying in Aleppo?” He frowned. He didn’t like hotels, he told me. “You come to my home, we will make you good Syrian food.”
In Syria, refusing an invitation is slightly worse than not being offered one. But Hakim lived twenty miles out of Aleppo, and travel in and out of the city would take half a day. I expressed deep regret and said that if he gave me his number, I’d call the next day to arrange a visit. As he got off the train, he raised his hand in an expansive wave. And when I arrived at the main station a bit later, Hakim’s employees, notified in advance by him, were there to haul my bag for me. “Welcome to Aleppo!” they shouted from the platform.
The next day I called Hakim from the hotel phone. No sooner had he asked for the name of my hotel than the signal faded and died. I called back and shouted unsuccessfully through a bad connection. The third time I tried, the call would not go through.
Two days later I left Aleppo. At the train station the enormous clock in the central hall was stuck, twitching in place as it tried to coax the minute and hour hands forward. It brought to mind the observation of Mark Twain that “a good watch was a good watch until the repairers got a chance at it.” Maybe relations between the United States and Syria would be better if the diplomats got out of the way and let the hospitality hostage-takers on both sides do their work in peace.