Syria – The Kindness of Strangers

Halabiye: Traveling Syria in 1989

Loudspeaker glitch crackles – then a guy sings the most enchanting sounds on earth.

The Islamic call to prayer wakes me.

Other mosques light up and an undulating chorus of prayers bounce across a city still shrouded by night: “Alla-hu Akbar! Ashhadu an la illaha ila Allah! Mohammed rasul Allah …”

“God is most great! I profess there is no God but Allah; Mohammed is God’s prophet.” [ … Come to prayer; come to salvation … ]

I’d grown accustomed and even looked forward to hearing the muezzin.

For the past two months in Turkey and now Syria, I woken daily with the dawn prayer call (mosques were always nearby and besides, I’m a light-sleeper, anyway).

Muslims pray fives times a day.

And whenever I heard the call to prayer it reminded me of exactly where my 23-year-old self was – somewhere in the lands of Islam.

And with the dawn call, awake, always excited to explore another day in the Middle East.

Hours later that morning as I was walking towards the bus station a sudden wind sent paper-and-dust swirling across the street.

Grit and shit flew down my shirt, against my cheeks, in my mouth and my eyes.

It was over within seconds.

I brushed my clothes and flicked the sand from my face.

But something irritated my right eye.

I boarded the bus with Moran, another Westerner I’d met two days ago, who was about to hitch back to Holland when he decided to join me for a few days.

We’d decided on a day-trip to nearby ruins of ancient Halabiye.

Getting the bus to Halabiye in eastern Syria

It was 60 km west from the desert city of Deir-e-Zor.

Long crumbling walls of Halabiye fortess on the Euphretes River in the deserts of Western Syria - 1989.
Long crumbling walls of Halabiye fortess on the Euphrates River in the deserts of Western Syria – 1989.

The bus interior had colored light-bulbs and tassels dangled round the windscreen, stickers and prayer beads and a vase of plastic flowers decorated the dashboard while the length of the ceiling glittered with Islamic calligraphy.


The basis of Muslim belief

This is the classic Islamic mantra – seen and heard everywhere. (The name ‘Allah’ written in Arabic resembles a wavy ‘W1’ script.)

Yet, God has 99 names in Islam.

Such as ‘the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Guardian, the Generous, the Wise’.

This explains men with beads, each rosary in three sections of 33; people uttering the names of Allah as their fingers moved over each bead, especially so passing time while traveling.

And as the bus rattled along the desert road, the driver played cassettes at full volume – vibrating speakers.

Meantime animated, shouted-conversations in Arabic came from the collage of black cloth, brown robes and scarves around us.

The preservation of modesty – for both men and women – is fundamental to Muslim beliefs.

Most of the elderly and middle-aged men wore head-scarves and ankle-length robes, or baggy trousers and jackets.

However, like many countries in the Developing World, the younger generation had discarded the traditional garments in favor of a Western look and so they dressed in loose pants or jeans with shirts; some wore plain-white or red-checked keffiyah.

While women usually wear purdah, a sheet from head to foot.

But very few were veiled.

Muslim women are obliged to cover themselves when outside of their homes or in the presence of strangers and ‘Purdah’ originally meant “the curtain that screens women from the sight of men,” referring to separate quarters within the home.

Amongst this backdrop, Moran and I really stood out as foreigners – looking the way we did, t-shirts, earrings, long hair.

People stared. Most smiled.

But we found it really odd when – behind us, two women sniggered, bracelets rattling as they toyed with our hair.

Noticing our bewilderment a young man leaned over and said “Excuse me please, you speak English?”


“You speak Arabic?”

We told him we didn’t.

“Do you want to know what these womens say of you?”

“Yeah,” we nodded.

“They think you women – please, you must excuse them. These women’s old and their eyes not so good.”

Ha ha ! ?

The women spoke to our friend and he translated their comments.

“They ask me you are sisters? They also ask why your hairs not same color,” he said, referring to my brown hair and Moran’s blond.

“Now this woman she says to me, your hairs very soft, like her daughters.”

When he told them we were men – we asked him to, they gasped in disbelief, giggling and squeeling.

“They do not think mans can have such long hairs as yours,” he said. “It very strange for them.”

He seemed to feel responsible for their mistake. “You see, they tribal women and they know no better…”

Passengers were a riot of laughter.

Our friend told others, who asked: Why the uproar?

Two elderly men teased the old women.

The women’s cheeky response provoked more chuckling and comment. (What was said? I don’t know, our friend was busy telling others down the aisle.)

Walking to Halabiye along the Euphrates River

The asphalt disappeared into honey-toned of dirt and rock, and out there was the ruins of Halabiye, 10 km from where the bus dropped us.

Our chances of hitching on this secondary road were zero.

Nothing but silence.

We drank from our water-bottles and began walking.

And walking.

Occasionally, a car whined on the now-distant Route 4.

Over the next few hours I saw an adobe house, a hill, the blue sky and the barren earth.

But I’d trouble enjoying the sparseness, for my eye hurt.

When we reached the Euphrates River I took notice of the scenery. Wow!

Liquid-blue silk – so blue were its waters that the sky looked washed-out against the river, flowing wide and swift with smooth and rippling currents.

Suddenly life sprouted from the arid landscape.

Wheat-fields and trees clustered round lone mud-brick homes amid patches of green straddling the snaking blue.

We’d now caught up with two local men who had been wandering the road ahead.

Both men wore black cloaks and red and-white-checked keffiyah.

One had his head-dress loosely draped; shrouding his stubbly skin, thick mustache, gold tooth and one eye.

But he and his clean-shaved mate were friendly.

They offered us cigarettes. Moran accepted one, which they lit as it drooped from his mouth.

Syrian men along the route to Halibye following the Euphrates River traveling Syria in 1989.
Friends along the route to Halibye following the Euphrates River traveling Syria in 1989.

We wandered in silence, smiling, the other three smoking, me rubbing my eye.

Sometime later, behind us, a tractor and trailer rattled in the emptiness.

As it happened our companions knew the driver and we got a lift.

They perched on the tractor’s mudguards, while Moran and I sat on the trailer.

The ride ended when we halted beside two flat-roofed houses – several excited children appeared from the plastered-mud walls.

Islamic Hospitality in the Syrian desert

After greeting Dad, they stared – you could read their eyes: Who are they Dad?

Our friends gave thanks and continued walking.

Ahmed led us to one of the houses: he’d invited us to drink tea.

An elderly man greeted us as he lay-out carpets on the floor.

The dwelling consisted of a single room of white-washed walls with carpets and cushions, two glass-less windows below the ceiling.

The old man kept smiling.

The children cooed excitedly, until Dad told them to sit and hush.

There were two boys and two young girls – too young for purdah, usually worn when a female reaches puberty – wearing tatty floral dresses, their hair brown and tangled.

Ahmed’s wife and eldest daughter wore black purdah when they entered the room with a tray of thumb-sized glasses and a teapot.

Ahmed passed a glass to Moran and I, then the old man and the kids.

Everyone sipped strong, sweet tea without milk.

Only a few words had been spoken, but body language is something people across the world can understand.

Clearly, foreigners didn’t drop in every day for tea.

The children giggled and pointed, asking Ahmed questions.

Ahmed said, “They not seen foreigner before.”

He spoke an awkward mix of English and French (many locals spoke a bit of French, a legacy of Syria’s semi-colonial past) as he sat with his rough feet protruding from his robe. “They ask me what your country?”

I wanted to give a good explanation, so I drew a ‘Map of the World’ on a page of my notebook.

But my poor skills meant continents resembled a spread of runaway-jellies.

Kids whispered as I sketched, their eyes darting between the pen and paper and my hair and earrings.

I explained to Ahmed, who then relayed the countries in Arabic.

The children repeated the names placed them on the map.

“Europa. Sov-vietie. Amerika … Afrique.”

I shaded in Syria.

Then placed Moran, they knew “Hollanda.”

The old man spoke to Moran in French: something about how Holland made good tractors. (“Fine machines” were his words.)

To alleviate any misunderstanding of where I came from – which wasn’t in Europe, as they’d thought, we then got closer I mapped out China. India (“Hindustan”). Japan. Australia.

“Okay, this is my country,” I said, pointing to a jellybean opposite a smaller frog-shaped Australia. “New Zealand / Nouvelle-Zélande.”

Ahmed didn’t recognize the name but repeated the French. (The Arabic is pronounced Neew-Zee-lan-da).

The kids had never heard of it, so I decided to be an Aussie!

With my nationality now established, the kids chanted: “Ostralyee! Ostralyee! Ostralyee!”

Ahmed explained to the youngest that I lived a long way from Syria.

desert village halabiye syria
The homestead where we stayed the night at Halabiye – Syria.

The older children wanted to know if I’d been on a “Jumbo jet.” And how long was it from Australia to Syria by plane?

I added to the confusion, by saying, I’d flown from England to Turkey and come to Syria from Turkey, and that planes didn’t fly direct between our countries. But, if they did, maybe it would take a day and a night by Jumbo.

More questions: Why had we come so far from our homes?

How many brothers and sisters? How old? No wife, why was this?

Ahmed pointed to my Doc Marten boots beside the door: “Militaire?” He asked was I a soldier, a policeman?

Syrian men wore sandals or shoes; only soldiers wore black boots.

And why had I cut the legs off my jeans?

“It’s very hot,” I replied, making a sun charade with my fingers.

“Soleil,” added Moran.

Ahmed explained this to his family.

You see, Arabs / Muslims don’t wear shorts, except when playing football.

And while they wouldn’t dream of wearing shorts downtown or to most other places (in 1989, at least), they tolerated Westerners wearing them – except in mosques, viewing the idea as eccentric.

“The children,” Ahmed grinned, “They ask me why your hair like this?”. The kids were giggling.

“What these rings? “He pulled on his earlope. “They confused by these things. In Syrie, these for women only.”

We told them it is fashion in the West. Explaining that both men and women wore earrings and both sexes could have long or short hair; bewildered expressions.

The length of my hair became a source of interest and confusion throughout my travels in Arabia. Later in Damascus, in the courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque, an old man mistook me for a woman, and shrieked at me to cover my hair.

Ahmed inquired about the small Celtic cross around my neck.

“You Christian?”

“Yeah,” I replied, aware that while I’d no commitment religiously, it would be untrue to say I was an unbeliever.

To a Muslim, a godless person is worse than a follower of other religions (although the polytheistic ones get a hard time). Strictly speaking I am Christian, having been baptized as a baby).

Many Muslims have a basic understanding of Christianity, for Islam (along with Judaism) shares some common roots and teachings, including the worship of one God.

The Koran accepts the biblical prophets as Muslim prophets, but Jesus isn’t recognized as the son of God and they believe that these prophets received only part of God’s message. That Mohammad was God’s last prophet and that his revelations – the first in 610 AD – were Allah’s final and truest messages.

Ahmed’s wife and daughter had left earlier; now they reappeared with laden trays.

Everyone washed their hands in a bowl of warm water then using right hands – it’s taboo to use the left as this is for the toilet – we tucked into a meal placed on the carpet.

“Come eat! You my guests,” Ahmed urged, rinsing our glasses before refilling them.

Young and old, male and female, Muslim and Christian, ate meat stew and leaven-bread together.

After the meal, I passed round a bag of boiled sweets, which I carried in my shoulder-bag. The kids loved them! While the old man handled his like gems, carefully removing the plastic.

He looked surprised when I said I’d brought them in Deir-e-Zor. And I wondered, had he ever eaten such things before?

Ahmed had asked us to stay the night and we now headed to see his “other family.”

His offer was generous. And lucky for us, since the day had disappeared and we hadn’t reached Halabiye.

Furthermore, we wore only T-shirts and light clothing, no sleeping bags or food and only a little water.

Our ‘day-trip’ had become an overnighter.

The night was cold.

Freezing air brushed us as we followed the river, it’s surface glistening in the moonlight, gliding fast and smooth.

The tractor jolted – headlights jerking in the dark, engine reverberating across the silent expanse.

Then we saw the ruins of Halabiye

Shadowy walls across the blue-black sky, stretching from the river to a far hill-top citadel.

Our tractor rumbled amid a collapsed stones where the road passed through, crossing a vast empty interior before exiting the far wall.

Minutes later we’d halted outside another house, surrounded by a high mud wall.

Inside, we met Ahmed’s parents and his brother and a friend.

In the center of a large floral carpet glowed a lamp, illuminating the lines on the old Bedouin’s face. His eyes were bloodshot.

All the men were dressed in traditional ankle-length shirts.

It was now quite cold, and Ahmed’s younger brother wore a sleeveless padded jacket over his djellaba.

Ahmed’s mother was a unique sight.

She wore loose black cloth and a band wrapped around her head, with threads of orange-dyed hair exposed; silver hoops in her ears. Her face tanned and wrinkled, eyes etched with black liner, chin tattooed with three blue dots.

After a round of shay – it’s customary to drink tea near-constantly in Arabia – it became obvious to them that I’d a problem with my eye.

Visiting the Eye Woman

Ahmed suggested he take me to the “Eye Woman”. I agreed.

It took fifteen minutes to drive to the village. The desert air cold – thankfully, Ahmed’s brother had lend me a jacket.

Some lantern lights amid darkened homes and now sitting on a step, lit by a lamp and surrounded by onlookers, I pivoted my eye towards the ‘Eye Woman’s’ gaze.

Her jeweled hand braced my forehead, while in the other she held a cloth.

With the twisted corner she stuck it between my eyeball and the upper lid. Scrapping preceded. My eye watered. Something was stuck inside – and I wanted it out!

She smiled.

I blinked several times, my eye was clear.

In her palm a tiny stone, about 2 by 3 millimeters.

(I expected a speck of grit and could hardly believe that such a thing had gotten there. Maybe it was part of her work to amaze clients with slight of hand miracles?).

Anyway, Ahmed paid her 15 lira ($1), refusing the money I offered.

Moran was sketching in my notebook when we returned. He’d drawn a cottage surrounded by orchards and hedges, distinctly European. He’d told me he lived in a town south of Amsterdam.

I asked if he was homesick.

No, he’d been bored; no one had spoken since we’d left.

Following another round of tea, Ahmed departed.

Overnight stay in a Syrian family home

His brother gave us blankets and a thin mattresses and we slept in one house, his parents in the other and I wondered: Had they given up their bedding for the night?

No muezzin woke us at dawn; instead we slept late.

The old man had already left for the day and his wife was working in the yard.

Once we were up she brought us breakfast.

We ate with her and her son a meal of sour yogurt, fried egg and goat’s cheese, scooped up with flat bread, sprinkled with salt and pepper, washed down with tea.

As we were about to leave I asked Ahmed’s brother about a photo-portrait on the wall, one of the few things decorating the room. It was a man in uniform with winged insignia and beside it hung a framed certificate.

“Brother,” he said. He then motioned with his hand – making zooming noises: his brother flew jets. “Israel,” he said then pointing to the ceiling “Allah.”

I assumed his brother had been killed in one of the Arab-Israeli wars.

In the compound, the old woman was sorting grain laid to dry as hens pecked and scratched amid the rusks.

I asked if could I take her photo.

But like many women of Islam, she declined.

(Many Muslims, especially traditional folks, believe the camera casts an “evil eye”.)

Before leaving we offered them money, but they wouldn’t accept anything for their hospitality.

Exploring the ancient ruins of Halabiye

Later that morning, we explored the vast ruins of Halabiye and the surrounding slopes – specked by rocks, scrub and shards of ancient pottery.

Subterranean tombs pocked the hillsides.

Looking to the Euphrates River from Halabiye Fortess citadel - travel in Syria in 1989
Looking to the Euphrates River from Halabiye Fortess citadel – travel in Syria in 1989.

HISTORICAL INFO: “Halabiye was fortified in the 3rd century BC by Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.

After her revolt against the Roman Empire in 273, Halabiye was captured by the Romans and subsequently refortified as part of the Limes Arabicus, a defensive frontier of Roman Syria to protect the region mainly from Persia.

The site occupies an area of 12 hectares (30 acres), protected by massive city walls and a citadel on top of a hill. Remains of two churches, a public bath complex and two streets have been excavated.

These all date to the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who refortified the city in the 6th century AD.”

SOURCE: Wikipedia

Returning to Deir-e-Zor

By early afternoon we’d passed Ahmed’s house as two children played outside. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Ahmed, so we never got to thank him properly.

As we wandered closer to the highway, a tractor stopped and we now had a lift all the way back to Deir-e-Zor city. Another lucky break!

But twenty minutes later, police told us to get off.

They said it was illegal to ride like this – despite the road being quiet.

He waved the farmer on with a warning.

And we were shown into the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser, where two cops occupied the rear seats, machine guns on laps.

Driven to a station further down the desert highway we had our passports checked, without fuss or hassle.

At this check- point, we waited for a bus.

After checking the driver’s documents, the police told us to board it.

And as the bus pulled away two men offered us their seats. We declined. But they insisted.

That evening back at the hotel, it seemed a good time to celebrate our escapade and open a bottle of local whiskey -only $2, which I bought earlier before leaving Aleppo.

Man, did it taste horrible !!!

Instant whiskey flavor mixed with industrial alcohol – no years of distilling involved. But we managed to drink it with cola.

And as we downed it, we reflected on those who’d shown such kindness.


The Koran: Sura 17

The next morning, I slept through the muezzins’ call.

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