When my friend Jenny wanted to meet up with me to celebrate her birthday, I was excited. “Great!” I said. “I’ll be in Syria.”
Two years ago, I decided to backpack around the world. Along the way, I wanted to travel through the Middle East; since I’d already been to Egypt and Israel, I thought that Jordan, Syria and Lebanon would be three countries where traveling on a backpacker’s budget would be easy. The world has changed since I took that trip, but I’ll always remember these countries as they were when I was there.
Though Americans now see horrific images from Syria every day, the country I remember is different than the one I see in the news. When I think of Syria, I think about the nine year old Syrian kid who showed me how to set up a proxy server to circumvent the government ban on Facebook and YouTube. I think of seeing the strangest lingerie I’d ever seen in my life for sale all over Damascus, and of the doughnut shops that put their little doughnuts on skewers, selling them as kebabs. And most of all, I think of all of the people I met – warm, friendly people who were so excited to meet an American tourist and to tell me about their love for the United States.
Today, it may be difficult to imagine that Syria might have a fun side. But if I learned anything from my travels, it is that twenty-year-olds all over the world just want to see what their friends are up to on Facebook, watch cat videos on YouTube, eat unhealthy American food like doughnuts and go out with their friends on Friday night. Damascus in January 2011 overflowed with young Syrian kids out on the town – out on the streets simply to relax and enjoy life in that particular moment.
After Jenny arrived in Damascus and we settled into our hostel, we went out to explore the town. We wandered through the Old City, which is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, through walls built nine hundred years ago into a medieval warren of shops, restaurants, mosques and hotels. We looked at the vast range of merchandise overflowing from the storefronts, everything from Arabic Monopoly to colorful scarves and Syria’s famous pistachio ice cream.
“You know,” Jenny suddenly said as we were walking, “I know it’s silly but I’ll be celebrating my birthday while we are here and I think we should have a real party. You know, lots of people, dancing, fun times.”
“As we left Damascus, we agreed to a goal: every day, we would make two new friends – and invite them to the birthday party.”
To this end, we spent our first weekend going from one venue to the next, assessing bars and dance floors in anticipation of the coming celebration. We had almost reached the end of the night when we decided to continue on to the last bar on our list. It was nowhere near the rest of the Damascus bar scene, hidden in a maze of alleyways in the ancient city with a simple pink Arabic squiggle above the entryway. We cracked open the door – and entered another world. Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” was blasting, people were actually dancing, and someone who strongly resembled a Brooklyn hipster was serving up drinks behind the fully stocked bar. “This is the place,” said Jenny. In a city where many frown at alcohol consumption and where a dictator rules over all, it was not exactly easy to find such a place.
We made a plan. Jenny’s Birthday would be at this glorious bar the following Friday night at 10pm. In the meantime, we were going to travel. As we left Damascus, we agreed to a goal: every day, we would make two new friends – and invite them to the birthday party. The following morning, we set off to Palmyra, where we met some backpackers (and of course invited them). Then we went to Homs and on to Aleppo, making more friends along the way. The next Friday, after a week of travel, we arrived back in Damascus. On that long-awaited evening, eight dudes showed up to the party – five backpackers and three Syrians.
An Australian who I had met backpacking seemed a bit uncomfortable. He leaned over to talk to me over the pulsating Britney Spears. “HOW DID YOU FIND THIS PLACE?” He asked. “JENNY AND I WENT TO LIKE TEN BARS LAST WEEKEND AND THIS BAR WAS OUR FAVORITE.” I screamed back. He leaned in more. “Yeah, well I Googled this place. This…” he paused, “…this is the gay bar of Damascus.”
That might explain why all the men were so stylish, so excited to dance, and were totally friendly – as well as why Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” was currently playing. After Jenny and I left Syria, revolution soon took over. We tried to check up with our Syrian Facebook friends but their accounts would disappear, then reappear briefly, only to disappear again.
My memories of the country are so far from today’s reality that it is hard for me to believe the images I see on the news. The numbers – 80,000 dead and five million displaced – are beyond my comprehension; instead, I try to compartmentalize my thoughts and memories of the country to that Syrian birthday party. I return to the memories of the incongruously glamorous dance floor, of the random collection of guests culled from our travels, of the spontaneity and joy and life of it all. Where did the dancing go? And when can it return?