Late October 1992, early morning. Sun just up. Frost on the ground. We quietly rolled up to Bab al-Hawa, ‘Gate of The Winds’. We were crossing from Turkey into Syria. There was a definite chill in the air as we were led by the brown leather jacketed “Tourist Police” past queues of waiting lorries and crowded cars all observing the strict seating code of men in front, women in back. We were the first two of only five Westerners to pass into Syria that day we later learned. On two large motorbikes, one ridden by a woman; we were the definitely the oddity. Taken into Customs, our friendly Tourist Policeman asked us where we were from. “England,” we replied,
“England! Ooof! I know English very well! Manchester United, Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles, PG Tips and Buckingham Palace. Oh Yes! I know English very well. Welcome to my Country!” The smile changed, his eyes sharpened and he leaned in, head on one side,
“So why you come to my Country?”
We explained we were travelling all around the Mediterranean and Middle East on our way to North Africa and he seemed to soften a little although he was still mighty curious as to why a woman was riding a large red motorbike and not sitting in the back of a Datsun.
He told us we must, “Go and see The Thin Man”. We asked why. “So you can go and see The Fat Man. See Thin Man, give him five dollars. Then see The Fat Man.”
“Why do we give The Thin Man five dollars?” we asked.
“So you can see The Fat Man and give him ten dollars.”
We chanced our arm and again asked why.
“So Fat Man can stamp stamp on passport and welcome you to my Country.”
We saw the Thin Man and parted with five dollars. He opened the door and there was The Fat Man, eyes closed and occupying most of a sofa. In one easy fluid motion, he rolled off the sofa, into a chair, stamped the passports, palmed the ten dollars and just as fluidly rolled back onto the bed and closed his eyes again.
Our Tourist Policeman beamed from ear to ear and proclaimed, “Welcome to my Country! Now you give the man on the gate one dollar,” he knew what we were about to say so he simply went on to say, “so you can be Welcome in my Country!”
His parting gift was a map of Syria. We still have that map. It tracks our journey through the most amazing, friendly, hospitable and welcoming place I have ever had the good fortune to pluck up the courage to go to. From Alleppo to Maskane (where we were given the recipe for our Moorish Olives by a Bedou Chief, Abu Faisal), to Rasafeh, Dier Ezzor, Palmyra, Homs, Hama, Latakia and onto Damascus. Everywhere we were made to feel, “Welcome in my Country”.
In just 14 days my whole appreciation and understanding of the Middle East changed and has influenced everything we have done ever since forging many of the values of generosity and hospitality we feel are so important today. The warmth and friendliness with which we were welcomed everywhere is a testament to the people of the region, irrespective of the current sad and distressing situation and, it is, after all, the original birth place of the Olive Tree. It truly was our road to Damascus.