The Euphrates is stunning here: wide, dotted with tree covered islands and in the late afternoon sun it was a beguiling mixture of blues and greens. The bridge seemed to be a popular leisure spot for the locals, at one end a noisy group of young men cheered each other on as they took turns braving the currents and leaping into the river, while the rest of the bridge was crowded with deiris walking slowly and enjoying the views, I went to join them. Walking along I was filled with a feeling that I loved Syria and possibly more that I loved myself for having been clever enough to find this beautiful and peaceful place.
Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by a polite “Hello Madam,” and I looked up to to see a man with a small boy smiling at me, “I can take picture with my son?” Suddenly I was filled with irritation: damn these Syrians! Couldn’t I even take a walk without being bothered? Politely I smiled and answered “No, I’m sorry.” He said, “No, I want for my son.” Still smiling: “No thanks. I’m sorry.” This time he shouted, “I want FOR MY SON!” Answer: “NO!” Then I walked away quickly and tried to regain my previous state of mind; unfortunately, we passed each other on our next turn down the bridge, he shouted again “No! No! No!”. Ruffled, I retired to a restaurant next to the river where I stared angrily at the darkening river and ate some truly delicious fried fish. I tried to work out what had gone wrong: the man was obnoxious! Yes but I was unreasonable – why hadn’t I let the child have a picture? But once I’d said no, why hadn’t he accepted it? But why did I say no? But… But… But… We were as bad as each other and I was sorry the little boy had witnessed our argument.
The next day I set off for the Iraqi border. Abu Kemal is the Syrian town closest to Iraq and as a fan of Iraqi poetry I wanted to get as near as I could. My plan was really just to walk around a bit and then head back to Palmyra but I had reckoned without the generosity of the inhabitants. On the minibus I had chatted a bit to a friendly elderly man and as I paused in the main street getting my bearings, he beckoned me cheerfully, “Come come “. As I said, I really didn’t want to linger, but respect was due to this gentle old man so I went with him. He led me to a tiny restaurant where he seemed to know the staff who welcomed me with far more enthusiasm than i deserved and were clearly going to offer me lunch.
The only problem was – and how can I say this without giving offence? – the flies on the meat in the window suggested that this was far from Syria’s cleanest restaurant. However it would have been deeply offensive to refuse, so I offered a silent apology to my stomach and sat down.
I was presented with rice and a kebab and then with a flourish they brought out a plate of greenery, pronouncing it “special salad for you, Madam.” Then they gathered around smiling to watch their guests eat.
They were friendly and kind, so I ate my kebab and the salad then we said good bye with much pleasantry. I spent the following week in Damascus with a terribly upset stomach but I never regretted my meal in Abu Kemal because of the experience of generosity and kindness. Thank you, my friends!