“Hello, can we help you?” Two young men ran across the road towards us, dodging the flow of traffic. One of them was burdened down by the grey box of a computer hard-drive. They were science students at the university excited to meet foreigners. We were touring Syria by bicycle and keen to talk, so we walked laden bicycles and computer together along high pavements, paying little attention to the modern tower-block maze of Homs.
The streets I see today on shaky news footage still seem familiar despite their raw gashes of concrete.
Once they were satisfied that our hotel “was a good place”, we sat together in a café eating kebabs where young men played pool and smoked nargile. “No, you are guests in our country” was the response when we tried, in vain, to invite our new friends to dinner. Back out in the busy night, we stopped at a fava bean stall to be taught how to shuck tough skins from the giant beans and dip them in salt. A patter of Arabic flowed between our guides and the curious crowd that had gathered. “The seller asks if you drink foule”. We accepted steaming glasses of bean stock ladled from the deep cauldron. Expectant faces beamed as we drank down the salty sharp liquid.
Now the shops are barred with aluminium shutters. The camera focuses on women that are running for cover. Then the footage switches to government tanks rolling through rubble and to plumes of debris rising from shellshocked buildings. The red and white checked shemagh scarf used everywhere in Syria to cover faces from the sun and dust are now wrapping up the identities of the Kalashnikov bearing Free Army. Paul Wood interviews people hiding inside their flats for the BBC: Men, women, children and ... students are under siege. Afraid. Deserted.
Then we took a taxi ride across town to their student flat. “So you walked us all that way to the hotel even though you don’t live near there! And with a computer!” They laughed slightly embarrassed. We sat on cushions on the floor sharing bowls of maté, the South American drink popular in this part of Syria, discussed politics, families and whether they would marry their girlfriends. It was late when they finally hailed us a taxi off the street and said goodbye.
A man is running down the street calling for God’s help. The burden in his arms is not a computer.
"My writing aims to convey the joy of being adrift in an unfamiliar world. Most pieces come from my travels by bicycle across Europe and Asia. I am currently writing a book and this blog contains selected excerpts."
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