Once settled into my apartment in the Al-Malky section of Damascus, I had one week before school began to learn as much as I could about the country I was to call home.
Syria is a gorgeous country, full of history and beautiful landscapes, which I explored with the other new staff at Damascus Community School.
A few things of note:
When I moved there in 1995, Damascus was a little larger than Philadelphia.
Both have over 1.5 million people, a Center City (Old City in Damascus), and lots of history.
Each city used to have height limits on its buildings. Philadelphia used to impose a height restriction on them to keep the skyline below William Penn’s hat atop City Hall.
But in 1987 Liberty One was built, and today the city’s skyline looks similar to other American cities.
- Damascus on the other hand has a limit to its skyline as well – resources. There simply aren’t enough metal resources to create steel in the country, and it’s too expensive to import. Therefore, most buildings are constructed of stone/cinder blocks, and only a few extend beyond five stories high.
In 1682, Thomas Holme surveyed what would become Philadelphia and created a square grid (16 city blocks) which would become Center City.
Damascus might be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with evidence of settlement dating back at least five thousand years.
There is NOTHING planned about the city; and the addition of motorized transportation created chaos throughout the city.
This caused some issues for American drivers in Syria.
The school provided rental cars for its faculty; three teachers per car. I shared a blue Mazda 121 with a couple of physical education teachers.
The car was amazing.
It wasn’t sold in the United States, probably because it wasn’t legal.
The tires were incredibly small, the steering wheel not four inches from the windshield, but the car could RUN. I took it on excursions into the desert, across rough terrain, and treated it horribly, yet it kept going and going…like the Energizer bunny.
In one of our first meetings with an embassy official, we were warned about driving in Syria.
- Syrian police officers earned about a thousand dollars a year, and would “supplement” their income with random stops. Syrians often paid bakshesh (bribe money) to avoid a costly ticket, but if we were stopped, we were instructed to NOT speak Arabic, as the police were instructed to leave foreigners alone. Tourists brought hard cash into the country, something the government was desperate for.
- One local friend of mine described an encounter with the police when he was stopped. He was asked for his papers, which he showed them. They then reported his car didn’t have something; he showed them it did. They then reported it was missing a fire extinguisher – funny enough, he had one in the car! The policeman walked to the front of the car, and used his baton to smash out a headlight. “Headlight is broken, that’s a fine.” Next time, he just asked how much the officer wanted.
- A teacher I worked with was a HORRIBLE driver. On one trip, she drove down a street bouncing off parked cars on either side, and never stopped. I’m not sure what car insurance looks like in Damascus, but I can assure you rates went up that year.
- There were MASSIVE traffic circles, (roundabouts) in Damascus, usually connecting the main city with its outlying neighborhoods. I lived closest to Umayyin Square, a circle with SIX roads pouring into it…and optional traffic lights. On more than one occasion I played bumper cars attempting to jostle my way onto Fayez Mansour on the way to Mazzeh in southwest Damascus.
- If we got into an accident outside the city and hit a child, we were told to wait for the police, and ask them to call the embassy. In most circumstances, the family would be offered money for the child’s injuries.
But if we hit a cow, we were to flee the area and get to the nearest police station to ask for protection.
In many circumstances, that animal represented a family’s life savings. Poor Syrians could always have more children, but they couldn’t afford another cow.
But my first week in Damascus I didn’t need to worry about driving.
Each morning, the new faculty met at the gate to the school, where we were picked up by a charter bus and given a tour of some Syrian landmarks, the most significant of which was Apamea.
Apamea was a city established by the Greeks following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Middle East, and for a while was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire.
Constant wars and conquests led to the city’s decline, which ended following an earthquake in 1152.
But it is AWESOME.
When I’ve gone to see historical sites in other places, they’re usually roped off, and we’re forced onto guided tours.
But in Syria, there is history EVERYWHERE, and what shocked me was how nonchalant the locals were with it.
On our tour of Apamea, we were allowed to explore everything on our own: climb, dig, whatever we wanted, all while the guide explained the layout of the city. The main street of Apamea is lined with a colonnade – the tour guide bragged that it was the “longest standing ancient colonnade in the world.
But upon further inquiry I learned much of it had been restored by archaeologists. Its amphitheater used to seat twenty thousand people; its ruins are well-outlined, though they hadn’t been repaired. Houses, stores, bakeries all lined the streets, and we were allowed to wander on our own amongst the ruins.
It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done…
But something I did was extremely stupid.
I didn’t get in trouble, but I certainly could have.
When I was younger, I rarely considered death – it was something that happened to old people, and therefore not worthy of a thought.
Today when I look at this particular photo, I think about how fragile these ruins were – sure, they’d survived earthquakes, wars, and time, but one wrong move and they could’ve come down in the blink of an eye.
Twenty-six year old me only thought of how cool it was to be climbing ancient Roman ruins.
I made some other stupid choices while living in Damascus.
But I made some great ones as well…
… Including purchasing Monuments of Syria, which guided me through most of my explorations of that great country. I’ll share a few of those stories next time.
…to be continued…
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I just went through some of the 1,400 photos of Apameia on Google Maps and it looks like you’re not the only one who climbed the arch.
Unrelated, I suddenly want a Mazda 121.
A lot of us are still alive because we were the lucky ones. In fact, maybe all of us were.
There is so much truth in that statement. I wish I were alive due to good choices, but I know that it was just good luck a lot of the time. Someday maybe I’ll write an article about my hitchhiking adventures.
One of my greatest desires since I was a kid is to have gone train hopping. A dangerous hobby, and not so smart when you have responsibilities and attachments, so I’ve never done it. But, man, I am still tempted to this day.
Hitchhiking stories sound good.
Some of them actually were good. Some – not so much.
There are train hopping videos on YouTube. That might help get it out of your system.
Or just make you want it more.
Seems romantic but I suspect the reality is pretty tough. That lifestyle is mainly for people really on the margins, and I’d be afraid you’d be a target some people with ill intentions.
Not that everyone matures with age but I guess that most of us become more cautious with age when it comes to acting irresponsibly. As well as becoming more respectful of others and property, whether historically important or not.
And now with a child its a case do as I say not as I did. We try to teach them to be responsible despite the fact that actually it was really good fun at times to not worry about the consequences and break the rules. Not that I’m advocating that its OK to do whatever you want, there is a line between youthful hi-jinks and being a menace to society.
I was always very honest with my daughter about what I had done and what I had learned from it. I think it is such a mistake when parents try to hide their past “hi-jinks” (love that word). The child always finds out and resents having been lied to.
I shutter when I watch the younger people with their foolish TikTok challenges.
Who in their right mind would try to chew on a laundry detergent capsule ? I understand that they are just kids , but it seems dangerous and tempting fate. You wonder why anyone would do such a thing.
Of course, this is coming from a guy who, in high school, had the bright idea that it would be interesting to see if he could keep up the same speed, running alongside a moving vehicle. I held onto the passenger door handle, and ran along side of car, actually with the car, as it accelerated.
The driver thought it was amazing that he was up to 25 miles an hour. My legs had a different point of view, and suddenly I was rolling on the ground faster than I would’ve believed possible.
I was so banged up that when I got home, my parents were convinced that I had been beaten up in a fight. I obviously couldn’t tell them what I was really doing, so , I sort of half heartedly denied that I had been in a brawl.
Plausible deniability, or something like that.
So, it’s confirmed: I was just as stupid and reckless as someone trying to ingest a Tide Pod. The only difference is that we didn’t have on demand video. Thank goodness.
My grad advisor’s pet theory about teen recklessness was that it’s about demonstrating traits to potential mates that would have been desirable in earlier times, particularly among males (i.e., the fearless, fit warrior).
Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence from my own life doesn’t really support the theory, despite the wealth of stupid things I did.
Honestly, sounds like you had an unforgettable experience, thegue! Made all the more impressive by how impenetrable / foreboding a trip to Syria would be in this day and age. Is Syria remotely accessible for US citizens anymore? Or is it redlined like Cuba?
Don’t know if this is in your future installment plans, but wondering if you’re still in touch with some Syrian folks, and if so, what’s their perspective on the recent changes / civil war-like conditions.
I will have a story about my maid while I was there, and most (all?) of my former students are safe; most have left.
There are others whom I never kept in touch with…and I really don’t know.
I think we are allowed into the country? But it’s not as safe as it was when I was there.
Thegue, these chapters are fantastic. You are unveiling your time in Syria beautifully, I’m totally loving reading these. 🙂
I’ve got a coworker I live vicariously through now; he and his girlfriend are the types of folks willing to take off on a whim and do hostel stays in far flung places. And it’s always the questionable for Americans places too, because he sees these places as – oof, better go now and enjoy it before it gets any worse! Colombia, Armenia and Georgia, he really wants to find a way to get to North Korea. That’s his big prize. I joke with him each time he goes somewhere he better have checked in with our Embassy so they keep tabs on him, I don’t want to be seeing them on the news!
I think they had gone to Australia when the US shut everything down as covid first starting taking hold, so they couldn’t get back for awhile. I know they’ve done an Iceland trip too to try and catch the Northern Lights.
Honestly, I could listen to people talk about their travels and adventures for hours on end and never get tired of it. Totally loving the tales that folks have shared here at tnocs. Wheeee!
thegue, do you remember a band called Think Tree? Well, apparently, nobody does. The Wikipedia entry is lacking a discography. “Rattlesnake” got some MTV exposure. I liked it enough to buy the album Like the Idea. Young me thought “Holy Cow” was hilarious. The lyrics are clever. In hindsight, however, looking at the single site that reprinted the words, one word comes to mind, yikes! But in 1991, growing up heathen, I didn’t take into consideration as to what other people thought.
I think the Boston-based band purposely keeps the album off streaming services.
Shriekback’s “Gunning for the Buddha” even more inflammatory. “Killing an Arab”, at least, is based on, as you know, as everybody on this board knows, Camus’ The Stranger. I have no idea what Barry Andrews was thinking, but the damn song is so catchy. As a teen, I used to play it to annoy my parents.
“Poor Syrians could always have more children, but they couldn’t afford another cow,” is a very effective sentence.