Philip Hensher: Faraway places mean more to us now

You don’t need to be a foreign correspondent or a historian to have a sense of these cities where terrible things happen, and to care about them, too

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The Independent Online

The plan was to spend a few days in Damascus, then a few in Aleppo. We'd use each of them as a base to explore a bit further.

Neither of us had ever been to Syria before, and didn't know when we'd be back. So we wanted to do as much as possible. For that reason, we decided to hire a car to drive us between the two big cities. Everyone who went to Syria said, "You must go to Krak des Chevaliers: it's astonishing. But you need to drive."

I love medieval castles, and the prospect of seeing the most famous of Crusader/Mamluke citadels (it tended to change hands from time to time) was keenly exciting. Once we had the car, however, it seemed a waste not to use it to see something else en route. We consulted the guidebook. It suggested a city called Hama.

My husband is not the world's greatest tourist – one mosque, cathedral or gallery and that's him done for the day. So it was not a lengthy pause on our route northwards. It was in the middle of the afternoon, in Ramadan, and the streets were deserted. The city is famous-ish, Lonely Planet told us, for an impressive Seljuk-era mosque, the masjid Nur al-Din, and for some curious medieval waterwheels, scattered through the city. There had been some more impressive mosques in the city in the past, the guidebook said. But in 1982 there had been a crackdown by President Assad on a rebellion. Many thousands of people had been killed, and whole districts demolished, including historic sites.

Hafez al-Assad, in his statues by the side of the motorways, looked unimpressive, like a civil servant hailing a taxi. In Hama, we didn't see any images of him; or his playboy son Basil, whose image, in sunglasses, was everywhere in Damascus; or the present ruler, the second son, Bashar, summoned back from a career in ophthalmology in London when glamorous Basil was killed in a car crash. Perhaps we didn't look all that thoroughly. The waterwheels were interesting, strange relics; in the hot afternoon, they creaked as they swung to and fro, tethered to a particular position. The Orontes river was low at the end of summer. The noise of Hama was all wooden shriek and the hiss of the hot wind.

We amused some children at a loose end by telling them in our randomly acquired Arabic how much we liked their country, what we had eaten for lunch, and where we had come from – plume de ma tante stuff. Then we wandered over to the mosque; admired it; got back in the car and drove on. That year, hundreds of thousands of tourists from the UK visited Syria. It had passed beyond daring, beyond fashion, into an ordinary destination. We were just a couple more tourists, there to enjoy the weather, the welcome, the politeness, the Mamluke treasures, the beauty of the cities.

And a couple of months later, by coincidence, I was invited to go back to Syria on a media trip. I found myself at a party with the president's wife, Asma. She was a gloriously glamorous presence with big hair and vertiginous Louboutin heels. She listened to detailed explanations about the Victoria and Albert Museum's lent ceramics with a charming smile, asking all the right questions. People said she was known as Emma when she was growing up in Acton, all those years ago.

The past few weeks, her husband has been taking action in Hama. After the popular uprising, the government blockaded the city, sending in the troops. Hundreds have been killed; the destruction has been widespread. Some of those killed were certainly the orphans of some of the 25,000 killed in the 1982 massacres. At the end of this week, some foreign media were allowed into the city. After a week of concerted violence, the Turkish reporters talked of random shootings, the destruction of property, of burned-out cars and a terrified population. There were reports of 200 dead, but I doubt we will ever find out what the figure is.

In 1982, 25,000 could be killed by Hafez al-Assad, and his regime carry on in its brutal way not just with impunity, but without many people in the West caring very much. For us, in 1982, Syria was what Chamberlain called "a quarrel in a faraway place between people of whom we know nothing", speaking of Czechoslovakia in 1938.

In 2011, that has all changed. We care because we may have been there, solipsistic though that is as a motive for caring. The name of a massacre: and to the mind's eye spring particularities. A halt on the way to Aleppo; the creak of the city's waterwheels in the summer heat; an unsatisfactory lunch with the impatient driver; a short, cheerful conversation with some idle teenagers. What happened to those teenagers, last week or the week before?

The world has changed, and we are invested in the people we know, the places we have seen, the links we forge fortuitously as we move through the world. "There were large people, white people, overflowing people, reciprocal people... there were chest-binders, fire-rejecters, rice-eaters, hat-band-holders." James Fenton on the people of Chosun. In 2011, you don't need to be a foreign correspondent, a historian, or a foreign-affairs specialist to have a sense of these cities where terrible things happen, and to care about them, too. You only have to have been a tourist, not very adventurous, with a mass-market guidebook in hand. And that will make, in the long run, a difference.

I wonder about the fate of Hama. I went there once. There's an impressive Seljuk-era mosque, just by the Orontes river, well worth the detour.