Monday, August 01, 2005


Some general stuff

Isn't it dangerous? I'm asked that by just about anyone I meet in the UK when they find I'm working in Syria. The picture in their minds is straight-from-TV Middle East - young men on the back of pick-up trucks firing machine guns into the air; bleak hostile desert; Westerners hated and at risk; burnt-out buildings; no alcohol; and an oppressive military state. The reality is very different, and anyone with a half-open mind should come and see for themselves. The people here are quite extraordinarily welcoming and kind. There is no hassle, instead a feeling of great safety, even walking through Damascus late at night. Nowhere in the world can be said to be safe right now, but at a personal level I feel as safe and relaxed in Syria as I have anywhere. If I am at risk, it's probably from a Syrian driver, of which more in another post.

As people come out to work on the project, their response is always the same: it's quite different from what they expected. Women from the UK often visit with feelings of caution about what they should and shouldn't wear and how they will be treated, and are surprised by how varied and tolerant life here is. Yes, you will see fully-covered women here, and many others wear headscarves, but many others don't, and jeans and t-shirts are normal. There's a great readiness to live and let live that takes some getting used to, but is a huge plus. Even in the soukhs, the attitude is easy - compared to some markets round the world with the constant "you buy, you buy" pressure, here it's much more of a social affair, where walking away empty-handed after a half hour's conversation and a cup of tea is not an issue. Eating out is easy, wine and beer are available in many places. Life, in fact, is very pleasant.

There certainly are men with machine guns. They sit or stand outside embassy buildings or diplomatic residences, some in uniform, some in suits. I noticed it for a day or two when I first arrived, now I take it for granted. There are lots of policemen as well, mainly on traffic duty where they act as some minute sort of reinforcement to the traffic lights, which otherwise are totally ignored. None of this is threatening; ordinary Syrians blithely pay no attention and just do what they want, and very soon you find yourself doing the same.

Time for work. More to come.


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