On The Road: The kindness and spontaneity of Syrian strangers

By Jessica Lee
Saturday 21 November 2009 01:00

I feel like I've been taken hostage, but in a good way. True, I've been bundled into a car and taken to an unknown destination somewhere in the old city section of Homs. But there are no dank cells or handcuffs here. Instead it's just endless cups of tea and a table groaning under the weight of huge plates of food. This is Syria and, yet again, I've been befriended by a local family and brought home for lunch. This is a nation that takes hospitality very seriously.

All I'd wanted to do was buy a bottle of water when I wandered into Nizar's shop in the noon heat. Instead, he'd quickly locked the shop, hustled me into his car and brought me home to meet his family. And here I am now in their living room, about to explode from eating so much food, with his wife Hiyam clucking reprovingly, "You're too skinny, too skinny". They sit there, shaking their heads mournfully as I desperately try to clear my plate.

Whether being plied with sugar-coated almonds by a sweet vendor in the souk, taking the time to drink tea with the caretaker of a lonely ruin, or becoming the surprise guest of honour at a family lunch, there's a warmth and joyous spontaneity to travel here that isn't found elsewhere. Syrians say " Ahlan wa sahlan" [hello and welcome], and they truly mean it.

I have finally cleared my plate. Nizar lights a victory cigarette. Hiyam claps her hands approvingly while the rest of the family grin broadly. We sit and chat over syrupy cups of Arabic coffee as the afternoon rolls on and turns into evening. I finally get up to leave amid pleas to stay the night. We take photos. Babies are plonked into my lap and grandma pats my hand affectionately as the camera clicks and flashes. I stagger out into the twilight, with a stomach stuffed with food and a heart full to the brim with the kindness of strangers.

Footprint's new Syria Handbook (£15.99) is out soon.

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