As I left the office on the Friday lunchtime to go to Heathrow for my flight, my boss called out after me ‘Everybody look at her before she goes. This might be the last time you ever see her. Except for on the six o’clock news perhaps…’
Which is an encouraging way to leave when you’re on your way – alone, female, white and non-Muslim – to an unknown Middle Eastern country, at war with Israel, predominantly Muslim, subject to US and EU sanctions.
Still I was reassured that no westerner has ever been murdered, raped or kidnapped in Syria, making it a relatively safe place to travel. Because it’s essentially a dictatorship crime is low, and, in Damascus particularly, since the city is so used to travellers and foreign visitors, a white woman travelling alone is not the oddest thing ever.
So I felt remarkably safe. I had packed long skirts and long sleeved tops, and understood the norms of female behaviour. If I was respectful, in theory, this was a place where I should be totally unhassled, even by UK standards.
If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a low awareness of risk. I promised my mum before I left that I wouldn’t accidentally wander into any crack dens or strike up conversations with men with gold teeth. But because everywhere I went I felt exceptionally welcomed and everyone I met treated me with warmth and respect, I stopped paying attention.
On my second day I visit a marketplace called the Tekkiye Suleymaniye. Browsing in one shop that sold wooden boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, I got chatting to the stallholder who offered me coffee and introduced me to his mother. He told me all about how the city had changed over the years, but never hassled me to buy.
A couple of shops along I got involved in another conversation with a silk scarf maker about his loom. It was in the shop with him, an old fashioned shuttle-and-beam type loom with a large pedal to make it work.
He showed me how it worked and then asked me if I wanted to have a go.
Of course I did.
I put my bag down, got in behind the loom. It was too wide for me, so he stood behind me and I threw the shuttle across to his waiting hand. Every go he got closer and closer, until after four throws I said ‘Right, that’s great, thank you,’ and moved away.
As I backed out of the shop, he offered me money off a scarf, and then said ‘That’s business, now do you want to come back later? The shop is quiet between six and nine. And I have shisha… Do you like shisha?’ My promise to my mother came back to me, and so I smiled politely and said I’d think about it.
‘Seriously? Will you come back?’ he asked.
‘Erm… No,’ I replied, and then left.
It was totally innocuous, and very adolescent. It reminded me of being 12 when the boys wanted to touch you but didn’t quite know how to. But I was annoyed because I’d kept the basic rules:
Don’t initiate eye contact
Don’t show your shoulders or knees
Don’t touch a man, or hold out your hand for it to be shaken, first
And by complying to these rules I expected that:
I would be treated with deference and respect
No one would stare at me
Men would not touch or hassle me
And this bandit had broken his own flipping rules.
If it had happened in London I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bothered, but the rules are different here, and in Syria I wasn’t empowered to tell him he was a chancer and show him where to go…