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Phespirit goes to Syria
tour     March 2004

Phespirit's Road to Damascus was the northbound M25 for London Heathrow, mercifully conjestion-free in the small hours of a Sunday morning. His flight to Damascus was a Syrian Arab Airlines Boeing 747, with no movies, no magazines, no maps, no announcements and no booze, but offering entirely adequate food and copious quantities of leg room at seat 14A. Arrival in Damascus was fuss free for Phespirit, but fellow Britons found themselves barred from entry - beware their road to Damascus experience.

Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and Syria has played host to many great civilisations, but no legacy has had a more de-stabilising effect on modern society than the establishment of the state of Israel just next door (n.b. a statement of acknowledged fact, not political tub-thumping). On 22nd March 2004 the funeral took place in Gaza for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas. Israel first accused him of masterminding terrorist activities, then they assassinated him with helicopter gunships - an action always liable to provoke uproar in the Arab nations. CNN News showed footage of protest demonstrations allegedly taking place in all the main Arab capitals, including Damascus, but Phespirit was on the streets of Damascus all that day and saw not the slightest evidence of unrest or disturbance or deviation from everyday routine. A few seconds of television coverage made the whole country appear dangerously chaotic, but this was not the reality on the ground. Phespirit says: never condemn a people on the strength of political soundbites or media vignettes out of context!

Phespirit found the Syrian people to be friendly, polite and courteous hosts at all times - a humbling relief for the visitor from a country whose army had just participated in a deeply unpopular war in a neighbouring state. In its simplest manifestation it was a pleasure to be able to wander around the souks of Damascus without being hassled or hauled into shops or pestered by opportunistic street traders. In countries where souks and bazaars see a higher influx of western tourists, from Morocco to Turkey, this is impossible.

Nice though it is to savour local hospitality in the midst of regional hostility, Phespirit really went to Syria for its ancient history. The monumental stones of Roman Empire, early Christianity, Umayyad Islam, and European crusades are piled high all over the land. Fabulous amongst these:

Of all the sites visited by Phespirit, the most ancient was Ugarit. This city was founded over ten thousand years ago, rose to prominence over five thousand years ago and gave the world its oldest written alphabet over three thousand years ago. Such depth of history, civilisation and culture is almost incomprehensible.

But what of civilisation since then? On the 6th May 2002, John Bolton, the U.S. Under Secretary of State, delivered a speech entitled "Beyond the Axis of Evil" in which he added Syria, along with Cuba and Libya, to George W. Bush's infamous list of 'rogue states' - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - who were all supposedly active at the time in seeking to develop weapons of mass destruction .....

John and George should come to visit this country and meet these people, to see and try to comprehend their lives, past and present, and then tell the world again what is evil, what to bomb and who to kill. With a little more understanding and even-handedness this fine nation could make a fine friend.

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