Dina Shahrokhi is Research Associate for the Middle East at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
The Syria I knew was one of the most beautiful places in the world. The heart-warming people, the beautiful landscapes, the scrumptious food, the ancient treasures – there was nothing not to love about Sham.
When I lived in Damascus less than five years ago, foreigners would come with cameras, not with guns. During my summer nights we also complained about the ruckus outside, but rather than bombs and bullets we would scathe at streams of honking cars celebrating a wedding.
And oh – Syrian weddings. That fun is a story of itself.
In the Syria I knew, dinner-table conversations centered around food – not politics. Rather than fighting over rations of bread, dinner tables were almost always filled with rich Levantine cuisine – fattoush, tabouli, hummus, baba ghanoush, kebabs (though I favored kibbeh), sweets, and the tastiest fruits one could imagine.
Before Aleppo became a battleground, I went and visited the oldest, largest, and arguably most beautiful citadels in the world, which stood next to the largest covered market in the world.
I spent my evening not by candlelight waiting for electricity to come back on, but listening to the famous Aleppo singers (known to have some of the most beautiful voices in the region) perform at the local nady, a neighborhood social club.
The last time I went to visit the border between Syria and Turkey, I wasn’t met by refugees escaping war. Rather, what lay in front of me was one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen in my life, which of course I enjoyed over a slushed lemonade with mint (called a pollo) – a summer favorite.
The Syria I knew had plenty of legends, too. It hosts what must be the eighth wonder of the world, the ancient city of Palmyra, and the Krak de Chevalier, a medieval castle.
Damascus is the world’s oldest inhabited capital, and the old market of Hamideyya lies adjacent to the old Temple of Jupiter, which dates back to thousands of years before Christ.
When I first lived in Damascus, I felt safer than I did back home in the U.S. Before kidnappings became rampant, I would take taxis right and left, opting for a cheap micro bus every now and then, and I would walk all parts of the city alone.
I would spend nights strolling the old city, dining with local friends at 10 p.m., dancing to cheesy Arabic pop until the sun rose.
My Syria smelled not of blood and war, but of jasmine that covered the country in the summertime.
My favorite image of the country came not from the lens of a war photographer, but from the Mountain of Qassyoun that overlooks Damascus.
From that view, the only weapon one could see was the sword of Damascus, symbolizing the country’s rich history.
The Syrian people I love never looked at their neighbors as Alawite, Christian, Sunni or Kurd. A Syrian was a brother and foreigners were welcomed with open arms – and then overfed.
Syrians were proud of their secular state, often sporting Western clothing around local souks. Syrians were the kindest, most loving, and most welcoming people I have ever encountered, and I can honestly say that I feel like a better person having shared a lifetime’s worth of shay on their breakfast tables.
When I returned to live in Damascus last year, the Syria I knew had changed- but not completely.
The people I love remained strong, the food (while scarce) was still good, and its legends lived on.
No matter how this war ends, my image of Syria will always consist of that view from Qassyoun, with honking cars and fragrant jasmine in the background.