Sunday, March 27, 2011
Sheep's Stomachs in Syria
My first introduction to Syria was white and rubbery: a mound of sheep’s stomachs on a bed of rice.
We hadn’t wanted to be in the café at all: our trip to India, in the small campervan with blue curtains and photos of our parents on the walls, was supposed to take us on the old hippy trail through Iran. But two days before we were due to cross the Turkish border the Shah was overthrown and Iran was shut.
In desperation we turned right and headed for the deserts of Syria. We drove for half a day, then pulled over at the roadside café for a bottle of water.
Everything about the country seemed scary to naïve young Westerners. We knew it had one of the most repressive regimes in the world: an uncompromising elite had seized power nine years previously under Hafez al Assad. They were embroiled in civil war in Lebanon, just a few miles to the west and had failed to regain the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. All dissent was stamped on: the day we arrived, the BBC reported that a demonstration against the regime had been brutally put down. It was 1979.
The men at the next table in the traditional didashah robes and red and white checked shemagh headscarves eyed us suspiciously as we sat down. We stared across at the mounds of white rubber on their plates. They caught our glance and I blushed. “It looks…very good”, I lied in that slow, condescending voice the British use with foreigners. Big mistake. The tallest of them, dressed in white, snapped his fingers and the café owner brought me a large plateful. My girlfriend declined – her mineral water had apparently made her full.
The sheep’s stomach stared up and taunted me. “Here, you must drink this”, said the tall man, handing me a large tumbler of ayran. The sour drink, made with strained yoghurt and salt, made me gag even more than the glutinous sheep. I closed my eyes and went for it. “It’s…extraordinary”, I ventured, smiling grimly through my misery. The man beamed: “You must come to my village”.
It wasn’t an invitation: more a command. All the houses in Kara had high white, spotless walls. Inside the man’s home there was a beautiful garden. They killed some chickens and threw a banquet, the men eating separately from the women.
We talked of London: the man frequently stayed at The Dorchester – he showed me his address book, listing phone numbers of his “good London friends”, all girls with names like Venus and Angel. “Do come and see us in Putney”, we said as we added our address to his list.
He told of his love for Johnny Walker whisky and in the morning he proudly showed us his mosque. As he washed my feet at the entrance, he taught us the principles of Moslem cleanliness.
His smiling face darkened only once, when he told of the people conspiring against the Ba’ath government. He spoke dismissively of the Palestinian refugees near the border and his hatred for the banned Muslim Brotherhood. He was uncompromising, for he genuinely felt the regime was right for Syria, the only way to hold together the divided sects and factions in the nation. It’s taken more than 30 years for his views, the official line of the ruling elite, to be openly challenged, and now the crisis appears to be spiralling out of control.
When we left Kara the whole village turned out to say farewell and I was given my own robe and headdress. I wore them once at a fancy dress party in Clapham.
Two years later I was out of the country when I received a panicky phone call from my girlfriend, by then my first wife. She was in our tiny terraced house, heavily pregnant with our first child, when the doorbell rang. Outside were four Arab women, dressed in black, clutching children and suitcases. They had come to stay.