What Went Right?

I knew that Syria was filled with ace historical attractions — Crusader Castles, early Christian churches, the famous souks of Damascus and Aleppo, and the spectacular Greco-Roman ruins of Palmyra, to name just a few — but I didn’t expect it to be the ideal spot for a family vacation. After all, our leaders, whose rhetoric tends to be parroted by the mainstream media, have characterized the country as a rogue state and an honorary member of the Axis of Evil. “American citizens are urged to consider carefully the risks of travel to Syria and to take adequate precautions to ensure their safety” says the U.S. State Department’s Travel Warning for those of us reckless enough to venture to this heart of darkness. Such admonitions have clearly had the desired effect: mention “Syria” to the average American and you conjure up a picture of grenade-hurling terrorists.

The reality, as I discovered on arriving in Damascus with my husband and two teenage daughters, was so diametrically opposed to this image that it made me question even what little trust I still retain in our media. For in a lifetime of traveling through Europe, Africa, and the Americas, I had never encountered such welcoming and gracious people. The phrase we were to hear most frequently was “ahlen wa sahlen” — “You are welcome.” “Is this your first trip to Syria? You are welcome. How do you like our town? You are very welcome.”

It was literally impossible for us to walk down a street without countless passersby trying to strike up a conversation. “Are you English? German? Danish?” At first we were a little nervous about admitting to being Americans — after all, if their political rhetoric is anything like ours, they must hate us, right? — but we needn’t have worried: once we admitted to our nationality there was always a bit of initial surprise, but then the enthusiasm became even more intense than before. “We have so few Americans coming to our country. How are you enjoying your trip? You are very welcome.” Almost without exception, they spoke of their reverence for Jimmy Carter and their hopes for Barack Obama’s presidency. Occasionally we ventured to express some regret that our two nations were currently enemies; the response was always the same. “Everyone knows that that’s just politics, not people.

Do they? I don’t think we have any idea of that on this side of the world. In Syria the man in the street clearly accepts his government propaganda as being just that; here, with our diehard faith that we have a free press, we tend to believe what we hear on the TV news. So far from sensing danger in the air, we felt far safer in Damascus than we do in New York, and even gave up locking our hotel room after the first day. The many European tourists we encountered there (Syria is a popular tourist destination in Europe) certainly seemed to have no fears.

I reflected on the experiences a family of Syrian tourists would probably undergo in New York. First, an endless grilling at immigration and security, where they would be treated as potential criminals and enemies rather than guests. Then, assuming they were lucky enough to get into the country unimpeded, they would encounter reactions ranging from indifference to hostility. It would be most unlikely for anyone to bid them welcome or to invite them in for tea, coffee, or meals, as so many strangers invited us into their homes in Syria.

The whole experience made me do some profound rethinking, both about the country I was visiting and, more especially, about my own. “What Went Wrong?” historian Bernard Lewis asked about the Islamic world, in his recent book by that title. Some things have gone wrong there, unquestionably; but others seem, at least to my foreign eyes, to have gone right. Whether because of the Prophet’s enjoinder on the faithful to practice charity and hospitality or because of some other cultural conditioning in that direction, the Syrians have developed an infinitely more civil and polite public arena than our own. My daughters, for example — especially the six-foot redhead! — cut quite a swathe through the streets of Damascus, but we never, ever heard a crude or offensive comment, only expressions of open admiration. Walking through the buzzing streets of the old city at night, we were struck by the sensation that also prevails in some small Italian cities: the feeling that you are in a community of neighbors rather than a metropolis of strangers. To lift a phrase from Dickens, the Syrians seemed to treat us, and one another, as fellow passengers to the grave rather than as anonymous Others.

One might profitably transpose Lewis’s question and ask what went wrong with us — with America. For my trip made it clear to me that something has gone very wrong: a cultural hardening that set in, I believe, during the Reagan ’80s, when greed suddenly became good. In the intervening quarter century, the entire country has succumbed to a grim Social Darwinist philosophy, according to which our neighbor is defined not as a fellow creature but, if not exactly as an enemy, then at least as a potential competitor. We obsess over our children’s SAT scores and college applications but fail to educate them in the basic values of courtesy and consideration. One might have expected the resurgence of American Christianity over the same period to have mitigated this dog-eat-dog ideal, but too many of the Christian churches seem to have incorporated the philosophy of competition directly into their creeds.

Christ urged his followers to sell all they have and give to the poor, but this is not very realistic — how many people in history have actually done so? Whereas the Muslim zaka, obligatory charity amounting to 2.5 percent of one’s income (as distinct from private charity, also important) is possible for everyone. That system has instilled respect for the humanity of the dispossessed; our own Social Darwinist system seems only to have engendered contempt for them as pathetic losers.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” said Mark Twain. It can also, as I found in this case, be disturbingly humbling.