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Syria: A Crossroads of Civilizations and Contrasts

DAMASCUS, Syria —  The Syrian Ministry of Tourism invited journalists from Tehran to Tunis to check out its top attractions during a trip to the normally reclusive country. Fox News hopped a caravan and went along for the ride.

Weaving through the narrow streets of old Damascus you can see women in modest black Islamic dress, or women in little black dresses. Syria is as diverse in public dresscode as Saudi Arabia is not.

In a remote town towards the center of the country, we walked by a shop selling shirts with cut-outs that had "Girls Rock" written across the front. It was next to a quite obvious lingerie shop, on a block that had almost as many shop signs written in English as Arabic.

SLIDESHOW: Fox News Travels to Syria.

The traditional versus the modern, insular versus global, modest and discreet versus "out there" or, as we from New York would say, "in your face," are the series of contrasts that define Syria, just as they do many countries across the globe.

But in an ancient capital like Damascus, it is all the more striking because of the juxtaposition of dramatic and obvious antiquity and architecture with rhythmically ringing cell phones.

  We heard Damascene night-life gives St. Tropez a run for its money, but I, invited with a group of fellow journalists for something called the "Silk Road Festival," was too worn out by the pace of traversing the country on a bus to hit the discos after dark. Not so much worn out, actually, as wanting to be alert by day to process as many impressions as possible.

The political story of Syria is well-documented, the essentially one-party show that is Ba’ath, and the ruling family that is Assad. Dissent is not particularly tolerated. Syria supports Hamas and Hezbollah which the United States calls terrorist organizations, and which Syria calls legitimate resistance groups. There are differences between Damascus and DC.

The people of Syria get less press than the politics. My encounters with them were memorable.

We visited a family in Damascus where several generations had gathered together to visit an aging relative. A fifteen-year-old boy latched onto me, eager to practice his English, which was pretty impressive. His delight in the good grades he received in English at his school, his interest in handwriting, and his impeccable manners were old school, even somewhat archaic. He respectfully stood up from his seat each time I got up or sat down on the sofa. It was like talking to an old fashioned extremely mannered gentleman. Until he whipped out his iPhone and showed me his Hannah Montana photo montage, which contained dozens of pictures of the American teenage idol!

Four generations of his family were gathered on a Friday evening to pay respects to the 86-year-old matriarch who was starting to slip into either Alzheimers or dementia. Her great-grandson, the Hannah Montana fan, told me stories about her life, her losses, the small plants she tends to on her balcony which she treats as her friends. He was tender and patient and engaging with her. Her daughter looks after her, at home.

An American in the Middle East these days never knows what sort of reception he or she will get. It can be raging or rhapsodic. In Syria, I sensed an eagerness, generally speaking, to smile at or talk to foreigners, which is not to say I did not get a scowl or two from the random man on the street, or the vendor in the souk who had had one too many visitors photograph him toiling in a medieval tailor shop or hauling goods on his donkey.

But there is also a certain kindness between locals, an observation based on very little data, but nevertheless apparent.

People were eager to help one another out with directions for example, as I traveled the country, with a certain patience lost in many other parts of the world. To an extent that may have to do with a less harried pace of life in Syria, at least as compared to New York or London, but it may be something else. Because frankly, despite the fact that people in Syria seem to be more leisurely about socializing, enjoying a good cup of tea, or grape flavored tobacco taken through a traditional water pipe, many people do work more than one job to make ends meet. So life is hardly in the slow lane.

Sitting in the courtyard of the Azem Palace, the grandest Ottoman residence in Damascus, on a Friday morning were students sketching the historic home. Girls and boys sat separately but socialized as a group. They were part of a school art group that gathers each Friday — their day off — to sketch and paint at different sites of interest in the city. They were clearly very proud of Damascus and spent a good chunk of their free time studying it. They were also involved in a group that is trying to get the Barada River cleaned up. The Barada, once the lifeblood of the Syrian capital, has been swallowed up by development and is only now 15 percent of its original size. It is also polluted.

A group of young men were particularly chatty, and invited me to attend a concert later to raise awareness of the drive to clean up the river. Unfortunately we couldn’t make it. But the kicker was when we parted. It was at that point that they introduced themselves formally for the first time, giving me their traditional Arab names, but then revealed that they prefer to go by their nicknames "Cookie" and "Brownie."

From fluent English speaking teens called Cookie to Bedouins without electricity, there was plenty of hospitality to take in. We stopped along our way once to photograph a Bedouin encampment. Our guide told us not to take their pictures. But we decided to ask the Bedouins themselves anyway, and not only was the answer yes, but it was followed by a whole lot of posing. They had pitched up their tents to that particular spot near Aleppo for the summer and autumn months.

They live off the milk and cheeses produced by their sheep. In the winter they live in a house in Hama. There they have television, which they don’t see for half the year. But they don’t use the internet, which we discovered when they asked us to send them pictures. We never did quite figure out how to manage that. They invited us for tea in their tents. We only declined because we had a schedule to keep and we were already running late. They insisted several times before the we scurried back to a bus and agitated guide.

The final close encounter was in Hama, a religiously conservative city where there was a very bloody uprising against the regime took place in 1982.

A couple of journalists in my group wanted to visit a particular mosque in Salamiyah, not far from Hama. So we jumped in a taxi and made the half-hour drive. The young cabbie was not only helpful in finding the mosque — in fact a small army of people got involved with us for the hunt for the mosque — but then took us to a few more sites, becoming increasingly attentive and solicitous to our every possible need.

In the end, again, we needed to rejoin our group, but the driver insisted we visit his home for a cup of coffee. We told him we were pressed for time. He asked us to give him 10 minutes. Phoning ahead, he made sure the coffee was ready to be served the minute we arrived so as not to delay us an extra moment. He brought it out in delicate cups on a tray with homemade cookies. His father came out to greet us. I went to shake his hand, he recoiled, as strict muslims often avoid shaking women’s hands. But he did it with a big smile rather than big embarrassment. The women were in a room in the back. I got to go visit with them, while the men stayed with the men. As a Western women in situation like this, you get to play both scenes, and visit with both the men and the women. As we left, the father scrambled to yank a bunch of pomegranates from the small yard in front of his home, to send us off with nourishment.

Whether it was physical, emotional, or intellectual nourishment, the Syrians I encountered all seemed to want to offer something up, to leave their guests with comfort and memories of the visit.

This is the first in a series of reports by Fox News Correspondent Amy Kellogg, who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. This report covers Kellogg’s initial impressions of culture in the capital city of Damascus. Tomorrow Kellogg will explore Americans in Syria.

Syria: A Crossroads of Civilizations and Contrasts

FOXNews - Amy Kellogg - ‎Oct 26, 2009
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