The place was inauspicious to say the least. A ragged Syrian flag flew over the station. The building itself was rundown. Inside, the offices were dirty and filled with idle men, some in uniform and some in civilian outfits –leather jackets preferred-, milling about in a haze of cigarette smoke. By contrast, the offices of the Lebanese border checkpoint we just passed were tidy if somewhat bare. The uniformed personnel, clean shaven and in crisp uniforms, dealt with travelers in a professional way. Once inside the passport office, our driver, a veteran of the Beirut-Lattakia line, told me to let him do the talking. With a handshake here and there, the necessary show of deference to the officers, and a couple of minor but apparently necessary “tips”, we cleared the border in about thirty minutes.
After an absence of about thirty five years, I was back on Syrian soil. Yet, there was no emotional catharsis, no melodramatic falling to the ground in a puddle of tears. More than anything, what I felt was a sense of bemused disbelief. Besides, any elation at being home again was dampened by my irritation at the sleaziness of the transaction at the border and the embarrassment I felt in front of my kids at the lousy first impression they got of Syria. But, as parents are often wont to do, I underestimated my childrens' maturity. They were unfazed by what they saw; they understood what was important and what this trip meant to me. For the next three short days, I took in all the sights, sounds and smells hoping to trigger long dormant memories buried deep in the recesses of my mind.
The coastal plain to Lattakia was wide, a welcome relief from the narrow and overbuilt Lebanese coastline. Some of the villages and small towns we drove through looked poor and neglected. The first familiar sight on the road to Lattakia was the imposing Mar'ab castle on a hill overlooking Banyas, a sight that always fired up my imagination as a child. As we approached the outskirts of Lattakia, I recognized nothing . The city's population has quadrupled since I lived there as a child and its physical outlines has grown significantly. Closer to the port I started recognizing my old Lattakia. Across from the old seaport, my grandmother's house, sandwiched between between a church and a mosques is now gone, replaced by the apartment building where my aunt and cousins live. A couple of blocks east, my grandfather's house, where I was born, still stands, old and rundown. The northern part of Baghdad street where we later lived looked familiar with many of the same pleasant 1950s and 1960s vintage two and three story apartment building surrounded by small gardens. Further south, Baghdad street used to end in a small traffic circle surrounding an ancient roman column beyond which was scrub and empty rocky terrain descending down to the sea. Today, the area is packed with upscale apartment buildings and it is bordered by the the new southern corniche.
In the short time we had, we tried to see as much as we can. We drove throught Shateh el Azrak beach area where I first waded into the sea. It is now sadly overbuilt. Next we drove further North into countryside to ancient Ugarit where the alphabet was born. That afternoon we made our way up the mountains East of the city. The temperature dropped precipitously as we drove up the mountain. Slunfeh, our destination was shrouded in dense fog. We managed a quick visit to the family's old summer home before making our way down to Haffeh. From there we veered off to the South to visit see the Salaheddin castle. From the vantage of the opposing hill and against the backdrop of the green wooded mountains behind it, the view is breathtaking (see banner photo above). Salaheddine's castle sits like a crown on top of a steep, narrow hill in the midst of a wooded valley. To reach it, one has to descend to the bottom of the narrow valley and then ascend the steep hill to the base of the castle wall. We explored the grounds of the castle excitedly for an hour before rain forced us to retreat back into our car and continue our descent back to Lattakia.
As vivid as childhood memories are of places, their importance comes from their associated remembrance of people, of family. My kind grandmother has long since passed away as have many of her siblings who formed much of our extended family. Sadly, as is the case of many Syrian families, subsequent generations slowly dispersed to the four corners of the world. Many left seeking new opportunities, others became unwilling political exiles. My aunt, a lawyer, remained as have her two children, my cousins. Distance and prolonged separation has led to strained relations between my father and his sister over the past few years, yet none of that was evident in the warm and generous reception we got from my aunt and her husband. I met my two cousins now adults, only one of whom I had seen before and then only when she was an infant. I, in turn, introduced them to my wife and kids. My wife, the more extrovert of the two of us, hit it off with my aunt’s husband, a energetic Levantine gourmand, as they discussed the finer points of Syrian cuisine. Now we definitely know that the Lattakian knafeh bi narain* (love the name) is the best knafeh bi jibin** anywhere on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We talked, we tried to catch up and almost instantaneously the three and a half decade gap disappeared. Once family, always family.
On our way back to Beirut, we stopped in Tartous, took a quick boat ride to the Island of Arwad and returned to meet with Abu Fares and his lovely wife for lunch. I had been looking forward to this meeting for a long time. It is curious to think that you can have an affinity and a familiarity for someone that you have never met. That these sentiments were only reinforced when I met Abu Fares is perhaps a testament to the communicative power of the blog. Alas, after too brief an encounter, we had to continue our journey back to Lebanon.
Middle age crises manifest differently in different men. Some seek out a sports car that they always fancied while others, grieving their lost youth, seek out a younger woman. Since I could care less for a sports car and already have my younger woman (OK, only two years younger), all I wanted was to go home. I needed it as an anchor at this stage in my life. This trip has done that for me and more. Perhaps the best feedback I got is from my father who did not quite understand my obsession with wanting to visit Syria. As we were making our way back to Beirut, my aunt called tell him how happy they were at having seen me and my family, and I in turn relayed to him the warm and generous reception we received. He told he how glad he was that I went and that what I did was not only good for me but for the whole family. For the first time in many years, my father is inquiring about whether he too can go home.
* Knafeh: Middle Eastern sweet filled with cream or cheese. bi narain: literally, with two fires; refers to the knafeh being browned on both sides.
**Knafeh bi jibin: cheese filled knafeh.