Surviving My Syrian Winter Holiday

The recent turmoil in the Middle East brings back memories for me. Memories of a family vacation that could have gone terribly wrong.

In November 1981, I was living in Amman, Jordan with my family.  Within the next couple of months my husband’s job with the American Embassy would be completed and we would return to the United States. So we decided to take one last vacation, to Damascus, Syria.  We were excited, knowing that Damascus was the oldest inhabited city on the planet.  Syria also had wonderful food, endless shopping and fabulous history. We made reservations at the Old Damascene Hotel in the inner city.  Staying at this particular hotel would make sightseeing easy since everything was within walking distance.

Arriving in Damascus after four border crossings was an eye-opening experience.  A socialist nation and allied to Russia at the time, the poverty was evident. The city was drab, dirty, and depressing.  We were surprised to see so many military installations – tanks, young men and women dressed in military uniforms holding large and intimidating rifles.  The narrow streets were packed with dust-covered cars and the wide boulevards were heavily congested. Cars jostled for position, honking loudly and repeatedly. I saw factory towers spewing black smoke out into the air.  It was not quite the city I had envisioned.

The first morning after our arrival we planned to see the Shrine of Saladin, the Umayyad Mosque and to shop at the Al-Hamidiyeh Souk.  It should have been an easy ten-minute walk.  So with our baby tucked into her stroller, we began our walk.  But within minutes we realized something was happening around us.  Everyone was walking down the wide boulevard toward the Al-Hamidiyeh Souk.  Twenty people became fifty, fifty became hundreds – all spilling over from the sidewalk on to the paved street.  Before we knew it we were part of a large and growing procession.  People held large hand-made signs with words written in Arabic. Words that we could not understand. But we did understand that we needed to quickly detach ourselves from this crowd – feeling more and more uncomfortable as the numbers grew.  Carefully, we edged ourselves over to one side of the mass of people and stealthily made our way down an adjacent side street.

What was that all about? What was written on those signs? Why were all those people marching together?

We had no answers to our questions.

Before long we felt safer about being tourists again and decided to enter in to the famous Damascus souk and do some shopping.   Content and safe, we did not give another thought to the mass of people we had seen earlier in the day.

Until a few days later, when we returned to our home in Amman.  You can imagine our horror and surprise when we learned that during our vacation, a massive anti-American demonstration had occurred on the streets of Damascus. And unknowingly, we had been part of it!

How lucky we were to have walked away before the crowd boiled into an angry mob.

All these years later, as I think back to that day in Damascus, I am amazed that this event happened to my family.  The story could have ended very differently. My infant daughter is now thirty years old, and when I talk about this story she is awe struck.

Do you have an unforgettable vacation memory to share? We’d love to hear about it.

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