I didn't know what to expect in Syria but got a warm welcome
Published 12/09/2015 | 02:30
'Welcome to Syria. Would you like a cup of tea?" Whatever the reception we had been expecting from the customs officer at Damascus International Airport, this certainly was not it.
The Arab hospitality is as legendary as our own Céad Míle Fáilte - but as we stood there at passport control, cosily chatting and drinking cups of sweet black tea from the man's own flask, the warmth of it floored us completely.
As two journalists arriving in a country under the iron grip of a dictatorship, we were aware of a strong possibility we could be turfed out as quickly as we had arrived, regardless of the innocent purpose of our holiday. But we had not considered the true weight of our trump cards - our two small children, a daughter of 11 months and todddler son - whose exotic fair heads would guarantee us near-familial status everywhere.
I lost count of the number of hard boiled sweets I fearfully prized out of the chubby hands of the baby, presented to her by doting admirers everywhere.
This was back in November 2009 and we had come to Syria purely out of curiosity and adventure, having taken that year out to travel around the world with our children, with the last three months spent in Hungary.
A flight of just an hour and a half took us from Budapest to Istanbul - and the same again brought us to Damascus, said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
The Old City is a Unesco World Heritage site and before the devastation of the current conflict, had changed very little in the past two thousand years. All the leading ancient civilisations, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic, left their stamp.
We were staying at the Old Vine hotel amid the mesmerisingly tangled and shady cobbled streets of the Old City. It was a beautiful 350-year-old Damascene house, built around a central courtyard where lemon trees grew and with a flowing fountain at its heart. It was like something from the Arabian Nights.
On our first night, we awoke with thudding hearts to the call to prayer, hailed over loudspeakers placed throughout the city.
The soul of Damascus was the huge rambling Souq al-Hamidiyya where giant jute sacks overflowed with dried rosebuds, pistachio nuts and fragrant saffron.
A man with twinkling eyes sold pashminas with a sign written in various languages - including Irish: "Wouldn't your mother like this?"
Curious, we asked how he had managed the Irish. A tourist had helped him, he laughed, as he handed out sweets for the children.
Some things about the city were disturbing. On the side streets, women's lingerie shops featured plastic mannequins with their breasts mercilessly hacked off to preserve their modesty, leaving two gaping craters.
And there was no escaping the fact that this was a totalitarian regime, with framed portraits of Bashar-al Assad behind the reception desks of hotels and at the counters of shops.
We boarded a tiny twin engine airplane, bound for Aleppo, and found ourselves in a city perhaps even more bewitching than Damascus.
The city's historical significance is that it marked the end of the 'Silk Road' for traders. For us, it stood out as being even friendlier than the capital. Almost insanely so. Sitting outside a huge cafe at the foot of the citadel on the hill, the baby was commandeered by a group of smiling young women in hijabs drinking coffee.
For the next hour, we sat there, amazed, as we watched her being whisked from one table to the next - perfectly safe and placid.
We stayed amid the decaying opulence of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo - where Agatha Christie wrote part of 'Murder on the Orient Express'. Room 203, with her writing desk, was just as she had left it. Lawrence of Arabia had stayed in Room 202 - but scarpered without paying the bill.
The owner, Armen, drove us to the airport, all the way beeping the horn of his magnificent 1950s American car and chanting the names of our children for their amusement.
Last year, a newspaper article revealed how the feted Baron Hotel had been forced to close its doors amid the Syrian civil war, with the front line separating government and rebel forces just metres away. Photographs showed Armen aged and frail almost beyond recognition, his beloved car rusting in the driveway.
It is impossible to know what has become of him since - or of any of the wonderfully warm Syrians we met.
Or to know if they have received a fraction of the generous welcome they gave to visitors like us, wherever they have ended up - if they have been lucky enough to survive.