Remember Syria

I remember Syria.

Walking there was like swimming in an ocean. In Syria I became puny.

I remember the vaulted chambers of the castle, that very old castle, shiplike on its hill in the summer heat, guarding the gap in the mountains that leads from the sea to the great city, Homs.

I remember kangarooing up the highway from Damascus, when every time the taxi driver fell asleep we slowed to a crawl, and every time he jerked awake he slammed his foot down hard – and the relief, after more than an hour, when he stopped outside Homs so we could eat halawiyyat al-jibn and I could buy him coffee and cigarettes, and more coffee.

I remember a handful of red pepper in the sunlight of an Aleppo alleyway, one cool spring day.

In my mind, I see a frozen image of a boy ducking between bolts of silk, propped up on a stone-flagged floor beside one of the tiny, nameless lanes in a fragrant souk now burned to the ground. The image is from twenty years ago. I don’t know why my brain has kept it. The boy is a man, or bones. The silk is a dress, or ash. The lane, twitching with high-toned coriander and bassy cumin, sloping up to the daylight, is busy, or broken. I don’t know. All I can do is remember.

I remember the very old lady who came in through the metal door from the alley outside, taking the step down at a lurch, and hobbling to the corner of the courtyard to boil a kettle. And I remember how the bearded man across the table from me, beret’d and twinkle-eyed, leaned in to say, “Rosa. The last Jew in Damascus. We let her use our kitchen.”

I remember March 2011, when Tunisia and Egypt had already ejected their dictators and Libya was rising. Even then, shaking with excitement every night in front of Twitter, predictions of dominoes toppling felt premature. Assad would not let go.

“Syria last to go IMHO,” I tweeted then. “Even Saudi more likely. Two most ruthless, most expertly brutal regimes are Gaddafi & Assad. Could be war.”

I remember the wonder when the first videos emerged from Daraa and Damascus of people moving against Assad, and of the instant viciousness with which the crackdown came. Those poor people. They called the first rising a “Friday of Dignity”. By dark, six families were grieving.

Long before Bashar, when the old man was still in power, I remember crossing from Antakya. Two roads led to two borders. I desperately wanted to see Aleppo, but we decided to approach kitty-corner, and instead crossed at Yayladagi to the south.

M spent the day beforehand hiding 120 rolls of Fuji Velvia film around our luggage. In the hotel I abandoned my copies of the Economist, with its incriminating analyses of Oslo and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty signed a few months before.

We crossed easily. I remember the aroma of frying on seaside streets in Latakia, and young men in cheap jackets, and a sense of stepping on eggshells, for fear of stumbling into the grip of Assad’s secret police.

I remember a suspicious hotelier in Hassake assigning us separate rooms. I remember looking out at Hassake’s clock tower at dusk; men shopped for plastic bags of flat bread in the street opposite and I didn’t know if they were Arabs or Kurds. I remember wordlessly grasping the complexity of cultural transmission while gazing up at the rose ceiling of the 1st-century Temple of Bel in Palmyra, familiar to me from 18th-century English mansions. Generations of English architects had copied it from drawings by a visiting Italian published in 1753. But it was Syrian. Behind a sunset pillar, incredible to me now, M and I made love.

Hama was the saddest city I knew till then, till Beirut. Its spirit had been crushed. Maybe 20,000 had died there at Assad’s hands, barely more than a decade earlier. I remember ruins. I remember whispered conversations beside old stones, tea in deceptively tranquil riverside meadows. And each meadow, obscenely panoramic, was filled with piteously miserable moaning as the great noria water-wheels turned pointlessly, their medieval wooden axles grinding. The more the river flowed, washing life through Hama, the more the norias groaned. I remember a grizzled man beside tumbled rubble, speaking to us out of the corner of his mouth of destruction, his voice mingling under blue skies with the purgatorial howling of the norias. I remember wondering what on earth had happened here.

“Gaddafi is fighting harder than Mubarak,” I tweeted in 2011. “Assad will fight harder than Gaddafi. Saud will fight harder than Assad. #onlythebeginning”

Now, of course, there is only counter-revolution. There is only fear, loathing and despair.

But Syria is not lost. Remember it.