After 9/11, a number of schools and organizations asked me to speak on behalf of the Middle East and its inhabitants, specifically to deflect possible anti-Arab/anti-Muslim feelings which were running rampant.
I’m not sure how successful I was, but I’ll say the same thing now that I said then:
In my opinion, the Arab people are among the friendliest people in the world. I felt more safe there than I did anywhere else, including the South…maybe especially the South?
(My friends and I were kicked out of a bar in Houston for not being “country” enough, and that may have saved our lives…but that’s a story for another time.)
While I was there, Syria was among the safest countries in the world.
For example, I lost my wallet in the spring of 1996 with almost $500 in it. Imagine my surprise when I received a call from the American Embassy to come down with identification so I could pick up a lost item – my wallet, with all the money still inside.
The first week of school, my colleagues recommended that I hire Naima as my maid.
She worked for a number of teachers, so I had someone reach out to her and give directions to my apartment – I would have done it myself, but she didn’t speak English, and she didn’t own a phone.
That afternoon, Naima arrived with her eight- and ten-year old daughters, which acted as interpreters.
Naima would clean my place for ten dollars a week.
It was the best ten dollars I’d ever spent in my life. Naima spent about four hours a week at my house, and the place was impeccably clean, my clothes never smelled more Gain™ fresh. Heck, she even ironed my socks and underwear!
Over time, I got to know Naima.
She lived in the Christian Quarter of Old City Damascus, a single mom because her husband had left.
In desperation, she began to clean houses to provide for her daughters. She cleaned about ten places for $100 each week, and that made her middle class in Syria. Her daughters went to private school, and she owned a satellite dish for her television, and a microwave for her kitchen, but no phone.
Naima cared for her clients as well. One time she opened my fridge and noticed I had no food inside. “Mr. Marc!”, she exclaimed in her halting English, “You no eat! I bring you food!!” The next week she was as good as her word.
I opened my fridge and found a massive bowl of riz bazella, the “meatloaf” of Syria, made of minced meat, rice, peas, onion and almonds, cooked in butter. Each week, Naima brought me a bowl to make sure I was eating enough.
I rarely ventured down the Damascus’ souq, but when I did I made sure I left myself the entire day free. Inevitably, I’d wind up with a shop owner in their backroom drinking tea and talking about relatives they had who’d moved to New Jersey (it seems EVERYONE had a family member who lived in Jersey!).
The store would be closed for a few hours, as we talked about anything and everything, communicating in halting phrases in each other’s language. One even brought out a National Geographic from 1974 (I think), and showed a picture of that same store, run by his father.
Taxi drivers loved to talk as well, but the insides of their taxis were nothing like I’d seen in in the States.
Their dashboards were covered with religious icons (if Christian), or a string of lights and beads that hung from the headliner and left the driver only a small area to see the road ahead.
But my favorite story about the hospitality of the Syrians came from my trip to Aleppo.
Before we arrived in Aleppo, my friend and I took a detour to explore a few villages with Roman ruins mentioned in the book, Monuments of Syria. We parked in one of the villages, then walked up into the hills to check out a few of the ancient ossuaries. Some young children noticed the strangers, and followed us.
Eventually, we wound up with a teenaged guide who took us to some Roman villas, and explained the history of his town as best he could. When we finished, we went back into town to hop in the car and leave. But one of the children wanted us to come over and meet his father.
We walked over to a two-roomed house built of adobe and painted white. The front yard was outlined with a white plastered wall, a cow munched quietly on some grass. We were escorted into the house by the father, followed by a group of young kids (I think they were all his children).
His wife had prepared us a late afternoon tea, then retired to the bedroom as she was veiled.
For the next hour, we exchanged pleasantries and talked about…well, what little we could communicate.
I learned he was a police officer for the town, and had only met Americans once before.
But he said he that admired America. For once, I didn’t hear about his relative in Hoboken.
A hour later, we said our goodbyes – hugs given, kisses exchanged, and a few pens given to the young kids who had followed our every move.
When the Syrian Civil War broke out, I had been home for sixteen years.
I wondered if my Syrian friends were okay:
Hani, who was half-German and building the “best restaurant in Old City…”
Another Hani who sold me a satellite dish so I could get “the best” American TV station…
- Rawa, a local girl I’d dated briefly.
- The couple upstairs from my apartment who told me with a wink over riz bizella they wish I’d “keep it down” the night I had a party.
- The store owners who cost themselves a few extra dollars for a couple cups of tea and a conversation.
Or Naima and her children.
About a year after the war broke out, a colleague of mine for the Damascus Community School posted about Naima and her daughters.
They had escaped on foot north to Turkey, and somehow onto Greece where they waited for a visa to some European country. A few months passed, and I learned they were accepted into Holland.
Today, they are citizens, and Naima’s daughters are married.
Her youngest daughter just gave birth to a second child. Naima isn’t on social media, but her one daughter is, and shared this message from her mother:
God bless Syria.
I hope someday it will be safe enough for me to visit.
Until then, I hope those who remain there are protected from harm.
…to be continued…
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