Years after that trip, I was nagged by a recurring question. It was a kind of what-if-the-shoe-was-on-the-other-foot kind of query. It no longer nags me.
Now? It haunts me.
It was 1998. I was 38 years old and Kevin was 41. We flew to London, and, along with about a dozen other backpackers, boarded a ridiculously huge orange truck. We blasted through Europe, guerilla camping on the sides of roads and in random campgrounds with our canvas tents and little army-style cots. We slowed down when we reached Turkey, rolling through endless miles scented by the overwhelming aroma of orange blossoms.
Now our camping included stringing our mosquito nets under olive trees in a farmer’s field and waking in the early dawn to the muzzein’s call to prayer. We went through Syria, Jordan and finally, about seven weeks later, Egypt.
Cairo was the end of the trip for Kevin and me, but most of our new friends had signed on for the longer journey, onward for another couple of months to Iran, India and Pakistan.
The trip was pivotal in many ways, but for me, the most important part of the journey occurred in Syria. I was nervous about driving into that country, especially in our stupidly-large overly-orange and very-conspicious truck. Sure enough, as we entered the mayhem of Aleppo traffic, we could hear people yelling at us. Finally we realized what they were saying, “Welcome Syria! Welcome!”
It was in the Aleppo market where Kevin found his Bedouin garb, first confirming with the merchant that it would not be perceived as disrespectful. No, he was assured. It was fine.
We carried on from Aleppo, traveling through trackless deserts, past ancient ruins that in any other country would have armed guards and entrance fees. I had started dreaming of baths. I was living and sleeping in the same dusty garb, washing behind rock piles in the morning, using rather useless splashes of water from plastic bottles. Our truck’s huge reservoir was almost dry.
Stan, our fearless guide, pulled into a Bedouin village. It looked abandoned, but as we waited, people materialized out of the yellow sand. Stan, using his best scrambled Arabic, asked if we could fill our tank from their well. Of course, they said. Of course.
As the tank filled, the village men slowly surrounded Kevin, each taking turns as they demonstrated the correct way for him to properly wrap his head scarf.
Then the women moved closer, and reaching up through the truck rails, grabbed our hands, pulling the rest of us down from the truck. We followed them into the biggest hut where there was much bustling and rearranging of mats for us to sit in the dim light while they made tea. We had a few phrase books and did our best with pictures and charades. The women never stopped smiling and laughing and pouring tea, clasping our hands and passing over their children to sit on our laps.
Every single encounter in Syria followed that similar theme. People offered us tea, not because they wanted to sell us something, but because they wanted to talk. Only talk. They gave us rides when there were no taxis, and, like the traffic cop who left his post to walk us, blocks away, to the restaurant listed in our Lonely Planet, only ever wanted to help. Whether we were at a market in the middle of the desert, in Aleppo or Damascus, every person offered everything they could and every single encounter refused any kind of payment. The people embodied kindness.
I have now been to almost sixty countries. I’ve never encountered as many generous and hospitable people as the ones I found in Syria.
We returned home from the trip and settled back into our huge house in Mission. I kept asking myself, asking Kevin, asking anyone who would listen to my endless stories about Syria, the same question. The question was kind of funny but wasn’t really. More than anything it demonstrated a huge difference in culture and expectations. But it was also humbling and more than a little embarrassing.
But now it’s more than that, it’s the question that wakes me with the haunting image of a dead boy washed up on shore, of people dying, jammed in trucks, of angry citizens screaming, “Not here!”, and impossible-to-pin-down-politicians.
Now, my long ago question is the one that the whole world needs to answer,
“What do you think we’d do if a truck load of Syrians showed up on our street?”
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
- Hebrews 13:2