Recent harrowing pictures from the horrendous ongoing situation in Syria cannot help but stir my heart and make me think of a poignant and deeply impacting visit there in summer 2005.
The following is an excerpt from a longer piece of writing recalling that experience…
(This is just designed to ‘whet the appetite’, but IF you are interested in reading more, leave me a comment and feel free to tell me. )
As a little girl I had always seen the television news pictures of the Middle East and thought,
‘One day I would love to actually go there to see what it’s like for myself.’
Growing up in rural Northern Ireland, this seemed like a strange and somewhat unlikely possibility. No one in our family or friends had ever travelled to that region of the world.
In summer 2005, however, I would eventually realise a childhood desire and do just that, co-leading a team of other young adults, with a local youth organisation from Northern Ireland, on a summer expedition to the Middle East.
Many things happened during that three-week long trip. A strong etching of impacting experiences would take place, which I was not to fully appreciate until time has gone on.
Monday 1st August, 2005, saw the completion of my early intention, as the two other younger members of the team, both called Harriot* and I travelled into the smoky, polluted, extremely hot centre of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, en route to the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Everyone in our team of 11, it seemed, had been ill during the previous days and three of us were split up from the rest of the team, due to the severity of our symptoms. I was just 22 years old but was co-leading the team. I began to think of my onward journey with my two younger team mates, (whom I was responsible for) on the famous Middle Eastern journey on the road to Damascus.
I felt the weight of the responsibility but enjoyed rising to the challenge.
The road to Damascus seemed always to have such holy connotations, growing up in a churched childhood full of references to the biblical apostle Paul, (who, of course, had his famous conversion to Christianity on that equally famous Middle Eastern highway). I could not wait to experience it for myself in the raw, real, 21st century version. I felt terrified and yet richly enthused about the entire possibility, amidst trying to maintain the calm that had ensued in my previously very upset digestive system. Privileged and thrilled. These were the ongoing feelings I felt inside for the rest of that afternoon in the sweltering stale heat of the region. I had never felt such strong sunshine before on my milky white Irish skin.
Vivid memories remain of reaching the bustling taxi rank where all the large, boisterously yellow American Chevrolet cars were waiting. They were the standard method of transport to get from Beirut to Damascus. Hilarious, I thought. I could hardly believe it… I remember thinking to myself, ‘what a specific symbol of American Western capitalism etching itself upon the everyday life of these Middle Eastern people (mostly men) wanting to travel to this strictly Muslim nation of Syria, (‘McDonalds’ had yet to be allowed to open by the Syrian government). These distinctive yellow Chevrolet’s were also highly polluting noisy beasts in my opinion, but nevertheless a fun way to travel as a once-off for three young white Northern Ireland ladies up for some Middle Eastern excitement and adventure.
So off we went, a sticky, sweaty journey through the Lebanese mountains, over dusty barren roads, and, through deserted rural mountainous terrain. Windows were partially down due to the enduring late afternoon heat, and with the wind in our hair, we travelled as the three free young women we were, generally carefree and happy, oblivious to the many constraints and shackles placed on women all around us in those nations. As the daylight faded we soon were travelling onwards on the mountainous, barren road to Damascus by darkness. Little did we know this was symbolic of the spiritual sense I would encounter upon arrival in the Syrian capital. ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ lit up our way, just as we were about to cross the border from Lebanon into Syria, a reminder of the background dominance of American capitalist influence upon this volatile Middle-Eastern region.
We arrived at the large and impacting historic city of Damascus quite late at night. I was struck by the foreboding ominous presence of green lights everywhere across the city before us. It was the dominant green light of the tops of multitudes of mosques all around us in this Islamic city, striking in their personal impact upon me. Never ever had I come across such a scene or sense before. Not that I am anti-Islamic at all, I just remember sensing a truly foreboding and strongly tangibly oppressive feeling in the atmosphere as we first encountered the Syrian capital. I had never experienced this kind of spiritual sense so starkly before or since.
I remember clearly the stale smelling old taxi, which appeared to be reaching the end of its purpose-driven American life (having probably carried a multitude of people in its long old motor vehicle lifetime). Driving along, as we neared our journey’s completion towards the centre of Damascus, I watched every building intently as we passed. It felt every bit of the thousands of miles we were away from home. Suddenly I was struck by the reality that we, as three Western white girls arriving in this dark and male-dominated Syrian city, were going to be like innocent lambs ready to be pounced upon by foxes in the night, if we were not very careful, and more to the point, truly under the protection of our heavenly Father whom we believed had led us there in the first place.
Suddenly, though, as we arrived in the station where the taxi driver was to let us off, I was kicking myself for having been so stupid as to not have thought about this before, and therefore not have had the wit (or wisdom) to talk about this with the main leader of the team, *Andrew* before he went off and led the others on ahead of us to Damascus. I then began to feel angry towards Andrew, as suddenly I thought, too, “Andrew, why did YOU not think of this all before, as you are the one who has travelled in the Middle East before? I felt angry, no, very, very angry, at him for not thinking to be more wise and protective of us, as females. We were under his care, as I saw it.
My strategy at this point was to pray like crazy secretly inside and, yet show no signs (or as little as possible) of perturbation on the outside. Like a good actress, I was determined to carry my younger sisters, as I saw them, to safety before I would show any signs of the sincere fear or worry which I felt very deeply underneath my cool exterior. (It was only in a personal letter I wrote Harriot F, before her wedding, several years later, that I admitted for the first time to her that this had been one of the most terrifying times of my entire life to date both then and now! I think she was shocked, but with the safety of five years on, it was alright!).
So I remember praying that somehow Harriot S’s phone would work and connect to Andrew’s. My phone had stopped working over the border when we crossed into Syria and I could no longer text our leader Andrew as I had hoped.
We were suddenly about to find ourselves out on the dark, warm streets of Damascus with all our stuff in a pile, and with no idea where Andrew and the other team members were. Terrifying did not even come close. t did not help that we were being eyed and stared at by many Syrian men (no women of course to be seen in Damascus, especially not at 9.30pm at night). I have never perhaps ever felt so much like a piece of white meat as on that extensively unappreciated dark occasion in the warm Monday night of the 1st August, 2005.
Never had I been more grateful for a text message! We gratefully discovered that Harriot S’s phone did work, and we got a text back from Alan, saying where they were, and communicating that they were indeed somewhere nearby. Now all we had to do was somehow communicate this to the new non-English speaking Syrian taxi driver we were suddenly aware we were going to require the services of!
My inner response was to quickly pretend everything was okay – at least in my head – and I boldly went ahead and tried to communicate with the first taxi driver we walked past in a row of taxis at the Damascus rank. The communication was rough and we had faint hope that we could be understood, but we took the risk and very soon the three of us bundled into another Syrian taxi! I was completely terrified inside, but still holding my calm on the outside. I was aware it was not only my own life at risk, but also the lives of two younger team members, whom I felt very much responsible for, and very much aware that I wanted to protect and see no harm come to. To make matters worse, I was also very consciously aware of the fact that Harriot F was the daughter of the leader of one of Northern Ireland’s political parties at that time and therefore felt like an added responsibility in that regard! I was employed at the time by a local Northern Ireland newspaper, and, I found it all too easy to imagine the headlines it would conjure back home should anything untoward occur to her, or to the rest of us.
Soon, though, having managed to communicate something of the sound of the place which our team leader Andrew had texted us they were at, we were driven up a large mountain road which got higher and higher above the city, and further from the civilisation of the city’s centre. It was intensely dark – only the car lights lit up the narrow, winding, uphill road. Inside I was still just praying like mad, “Father God, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE just protect us and please don’t let us die, please let this guy be somehow safe and not out to kill us. Please get us to our destination somehow to where Andrew and the other team members are, without us being killed or raped along the way! Please somehow reunite us with our team, even though none of us speak Arabic and this guy driving us has no clue about English!” On and on went my desperate pleas to God, fiercely frightened inside, but continuing to cry out to him aware of our desperate need of him, and as far as I was concerned, like never ever before!
Thankfully, to my shame, both Harriots were seemingly not that perturbed at all, (as I knew I was inside), and either they were simply not showing it as I was doing, or they genuinely had much more faith, trust, (and therefore peace), than I had. This fact was also somewhat difficult for me too, at least subconsciously, if not consciously. I was battling inadequacies as a leader internally, on top of everything else. My evident desire for excellence, verging on perfection, was intensely in place in those days, though thankfully has changed considerably in subsequent years.
Finally, though, we arrived at a building lit up inside, and could see the rest of our team mates. It felt like one of the biggest causes for celebration and relief of my entire LIFE, as we pulled up to a restaurant at the top of this large hill overlooking the entire city of Damascus, and we were able to spy some of the team members with our vigilant eyes scanning everywhere in case we might see them. I cannot remember who saw them first, but all I know is that I have never ever felt as hugely relieved inside as that particular night Harriot S, Harriot F and I arrived in Damascus and got reunited with the rest of our youth organisation’s team.
“Thank God,” seemed like such a pathetic understatement.
I remember walking into the restaurant, where all the rest of the team were waiting on food they had ordered alongside a number of American Christians they had obviously connected with, but whom we did not know. I just sat down and felt the enormity of my emotion-filled night, and felt like I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but either way, I suddenly felt completely exhausted. I was so incredibly grateful just to sit down and no longer have the burden of full responsibility for any team members and so glad that it was a case of “mission accomplished,” in the end.
My contentment and inner relief and peace were short-lived, however, as very soon I became aware of what I saw by then as Andrew’s somewhat lacking leadership. It felt to me like I could not relax, as I realised it felt like he could not be trusted with the safety and welfare of our team, whom I was determined to protect and look out for, regardless of how silly or thoughtless our team leader seemed to be (or so I saw it). I had been victim of that once, in the whole terror of ending up in Damascus in that vulnerable position as three white Western girls, and I was determined that such an error on my part at least (if not Andrew’s) should not happen again.
We travelled on, late that night, to our “hotel” in back down in the centre of Damascus, which Andrew’s Northern Ireland friend John, who lived in the city, had helped us to find. Our stay at this hotel was to prove to be another experience in itself!
It reminded me of a Syrian version of ‘Faulty Towers’ – the 1980’s British television sitcom comedy series starring John Cleese. The bedrooms in our Damascus hotel were grim, to say the least, and the bed sheets left a lot to be desired in terms of cleanliness and whiteness. The lift looked and sounded like one which we might get stuck in through break-down at any potential moment. We were sharing rooms, and I just remember joking heartily with the other girls in my team whom I ended up sharing with, and we ended up just in fits of laughter about it all it was just so bad! On top of the unkempt run-down condition of the place, the stifling Damascene night-time heat was another addition to the plethora of factors adding to an overall comic or dire situation, depending on which way one looked at it. I decided on this occasion to choose the former! (No doubt aided by the ongoing gratitude I felt at being safely reunited with the rest of my team mates!).
The next day, Tuesday, 2nd August, 2005, the team boarded a great little bus Andrew had hired for us again through the aid of his friend John. We stocked up on water before we left the Syrian capital– an essential item for any day time venture in the Middle East. We left Damascus and began what was to be an incredible, unforgettable four-day Spirit-led adventure. I look back with an immense sense of privilege at having had the chance to do this and go on this trip, serving God in the process of a once-in-a-lifetime type trip, and one which has etched its mark upon me for the rest of my life in an indelible, impacting and perhaps even charming manner.
The current situation of war in Syria is abhorrent to me, and I long for a change and breakthrough settlement for the innocent people caught up in this horrid situation. My prayers are continuing for this country and region.
*Names have been changed in the above article, for reasons of personal confidentiality