When Peter and I went to Syria in 1999, we were bowled over by just how incredibly nice and kind people were. Unlike Egyptians, however, these people did not have a clutching, crazed fascination with us as foreigners, and so were also exceedingly polite. It was odd to be in a place that was more closed off from global culture and yet also more blase and cosmopolitan than Egyptians could ever be.
More concretely, it was disorienting for me to sit in a park, alone, for half an hour and have absolutely no one bother me. Well, finally a young kid approached me, and he very nervously, blinkingly asked, “D-d-do you have the t-t-time?” After that, he asked me if I was Russian (aka a prostitute), and scampered away in shame when I said no.
Fast-forward to Syria 2007: Mobile phones, Internet and satellite porn have arrived, but not much else has changed. People are still exceedingly nice. Legitimate businesspeople still offer you the very thing they’re selling for free, which makes no sense at all. People say “Welcome” and don’t use it as a preamble to papyrus vending. Basically, Peter and I walked around for a week on the verge of tears of joy–every time someone did something nice, we would grab each other and blink the moistness from our eyes. I thought often of my mother’s made-up Spanish phrase, “Mi corazon es gordo”; my heart did indeed feel fat with love for all human endeavor, whether that came in the form of directions given clearly or an especially tasty sandwich.
Before we knew it, we were tearing up over, say, the bike-shop owner sharing his lunch with us, the tamarind-juice seller asking us whether people drank tamarind in America then offering us our drinks for free, Koko the adorable tailor making Peter a perfect shirt, everyone who offered us water and Kleenex to wash our hands, the bike-shop owner giving us a box and packing tape, the guys at the post office telling us how to navigate the system instead of being the usual sullen bureaucrats, the guys at the restaurant giving us cheese and salad when they saw me eyeing their plate, the bike-shop owner telling us he would give us a bicycle when we had a baby…
I could go on. And we really liked the bike-shop owner. He should get a medal. He’s certainly the only person who’s ever made me think twice about not procreating.
I realize there are some slightly problematic issues with us fetishizing Syrians this way. Egyptians did many of the same nice things (some were even helpful at the post office!), as did Turks once we crossed the border, but I’m not bursting into tears over them–is it just because they’re not locked away in a pariah state? And it’s hard to ignore Syria’s questionable political situation, along with the kerjillion posters of Bashar al-Asad, the most un-dictator-looking dictator ever. (In fact, because he’s so dorky, I simply can’t believe he means anything but good. I’m rooting for him, but I’m afraid I’ll regret that I typed this one day.)
See, one free lunch and I’m an apologist for a dictatorship. Did I mention how you can drink the water and there’s no crime? Excuse me–I feel a little crying jag coming on.