A Memorable Place A warm family welcome to Damascus By...

PERSONAL JOURNEYS

July 28, 2002|By Special to the Sun

A Memorable Place

A warm family welcome to Damascus

By Keith Inman

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My wife and I traveled to Damascus, Syria, on our honeymoon in 1992. She had spent many summers there growing up, and wanted me to meet her Syrian father's family.

Aside from the physical beauty of the city and the surrounding areas, the most touching aspect of the visit was the warmth and courtesy of the Syrians, among those we met on the street as well as my wife's large, extended family.

Syria has been relatively isolated from the West until recent efforts by the government to encourage tourism. More than any other city I have visited, Damascus retains its own distinctive appearance and unique feel. Many of its old bazaars and buildings are intact and in active use. High taxes on private cars mean less traffic congestion than in other large cities, and more pedestrian activity. This makes for a lively street life, which can be a challenge for residents but a joy for visitors.

On my first evening in the city, several of my wife's male cousins took me to the ancient public bathhouse, still being used for bathing, massage and relaxation. After our baths and massages, we relaxed in a warm stone room covered with Oriental carpets, sipping hot tea.

Then the cousins took me out for a snack of foul modamas, a delicious dish of fava beans, parsley, tomato, onion, garlic, lemon and olive oil. On our walk home, we heard someone calling to us. A stranger had noticed that I had left my expensive camera in the restaurant, and ran two blocks to catch up with us to return it.

During our stay, scores of family members visited to pay their respects. Many offered to show us around or invited us to their homes for meals. Walking along the biblical-era "Straight Street" and elsewhere in ancient Damascus, I was awed by the living antiquity. Some of the stone walls and arches still stand after thousands of years.

We visited homes in the city and nearby village where many members of my wife's family still live. The food was among the best I've ever eaten. As in many traditional cultures, the most complex and interesting food is found in people's homes, where cooking is taken seriously as a domestic art. The generosity reflected in the bountiful meals we were served was extraordinary, especially considering our hosts' limited incomes -- a hardship faced by most Syrians.

Had I been a tourist visiting Syria, I would not have been able to enjoy the trip in the same way. I feel lucky that I had a family there who helped make it the most enjoyable trip I've ever taken.

Keith Inman lives in Baltimore.

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