In the summer of 2007 I travelled to Syria.
Our group were on a trip around the Middle East when we crossed over the Jordanian border to arrive in the ancient walled city of Damascus. A collection of women from England, Australia, Canada and the US, we walked past palm trees and half ruined architecture above multi-coloured parasols.
My eyes were constantly pulled towards every tiny detail of this bizarre and bustling city. To bare lightbulbs strung into strips of stainless steel roofing; electric wires snaking across the brickwork; tiny birds tweeting from the inside of intricately carved cages.
At the entrance to the city’s Al-Hamidiyah Souq – famous for its pistachio-rolled ice cream cones at the Bakdash parlour – we passed under a huge billboard with Bashar al-Assad’s grinning face and pointing finger saying ‘I Believe in Syria’.
The cramped stores inside were stuffed to the gills: shelves of carved wooden boxes and little glass bottles of perfume jostling for space between cellophane wrapped bars of olive oil soap, piles of sticky sweets and old ticking clocks.
Rows of shisha pipes hung like colourful dormant snakes alongside delicately strung lutes with bent bridges and frilly white children’s dresses. Displays of women’s headscarves were tied around the heads of obliging female busts made from white plastic in a far-off factory somewhere.
In a sunny paved courtyard, I watched a man balanced on a wooden ladder as he tied knots in a string of Syrian flags. Groups of people flocked to the entrance of a mosque; the women shapeless in their black coverings, the men in light slacks and loose white shirts with sleeves raised to the elbows.
The Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest and oldest in the world, had strict entrance instructions: in through a side door if we were all foreigners and all women. A duo of impassive men at the front entrance indicated that we should don grey hooded smocks sealed with velcro patches.
The white marble looked golden in the bright sunlight, and we walked quickly because the surface radiated heat and we were obligatorily barefoot. Gilded paintings were painstakingly etched into the marble above the heads of the elderly women who sat cross-legged in rows or formed circular groups against the cool internal walls.
So what do I think about Syria now?
Four years later when bombs began to fall over Syria, I looked through my collection of photos and couldn’t believe how quickly things could change. My diary noted the memory of just how often we saw Bashar’s face: grinning unperturbed from fridge magnets, his portrait propped inside small windows, plastered on towering billboards and across the painted surface of car windscreen protectors.
Yet that was the only indication for me, a tourist, of what was going to happen to Syria. The majority of my memories were the beginnings of stories I briefly caught sight of – in the souks, on the streets, and from the windows of buses.
There was the immovable figure in a tight red teeshirt and slick hair, exuding his own sense of magnetism beside a blackcurrant juice stall in a sun-drenched market corner, a huge metal bowl of the berries balanced artfully above a camouflaged box of ice.
There was the man proudly peeling vegetables before a captive circular audience on a busy street – the first person to ever alert me to the concept of spiralising a courgette.
Like most countries I travel to (and usually because I’m actively searching for it), I felt a tenuous connection to this country which I’d barely touched the surface of but still vaguely knew.
Throughout our week in Syria I hungrily breathed in the dusty heat, the bright sparks of colour, the twisting lanes, the sudden expanse of desert after cities crammed full of activity.
And let’s not forget all that overwhelming history.
But things are different now. When I tell people I’ve been to Syria, they’re usually shocked. It’s like they can’t remember it before – as if the hundreds of years of dusty bazaars, fruit juice sellers, and old men napping in the sunlight barely ever happened.
But then it’s likely they never had a significant concept of Syria before the war began.
Perspective is elastic: it can shift and change.
It breaks me every time I realise that the perspective of ‘Syria’ and ‘Syrians’ for so many millions is fundamentally based on death, destruction and desperate refugees.
Somehow, that perspective seems to help in distancing many people from the Syrians who up until a decade ago were a normal nation of people: they owned cars and houses, worked normal jobs and lived normal, modern Middle Eastern lives – until suddenly they didn’t.
So what exactly am I getting at?
Since volunteering in the Calais refugee camps with people from Syria and many other countries, I’ve been thinking a lot about how easy it is for outside influences to form our perceptions. More importantly, about how these perceptions are then sustained because many of us often don’t re-address them.
Unless we have a reason to. Unless there’s an outside jolt to the system which changes our perception for us.
Take Calais, for instance.
When I was a teenager, my parents got into the habit of doing the ‘Calais wine run’: catching the Eurotunnel train over to the coast of France every six months to pick up cheap wine and beer. I spent most of these trips sitting grumpily in the back seat of our family car, asserting my newfound sense of independence by ignoring my mum’s Carrefour shopping list and heading into the rest of the attached shopping centre to lust over the French selections at H&M.
Simply put, this French city on the water has always meant very little to me except as the location of a large supermarket, a few restaurants which served a fantastic lunchtime helping of moule frites, and somewhere with positive memories for my family.
In the first few days of 2016, nearly a decade since I’d first been to Calais, I leaned forward in my friend Beth’s car to stare at street names through a rain spotted windscreen.
“Is it that way to the warehouse?”
Drenched in bad weather and the bleary skies of early morning, the Calais harbour nonetheless still looked exactly how I remembered. The bridge to the main square, the lighthouse, the ferries in the distance: all shockingly familiar. I couldn’t quite believe it was the same city where I’d been focused on clothes shopping – a world away from helping to provide refugees with waterproofs to withstand the incessant rain.
Over the next week of volunteering, my perception of Calais was repeatedly reshaped. Amongst all the information I frenziedly absorbed about border control policies, immigration law and the potted histories of various war-torn countries, I also learned a chilling fact about Calais itself.
Unbeknownst to me, the ‘Calais Jungle’ had actually existed in some way or another – most notably as the ‘Sangatte’ camp – for at least fifteen years. Mere metres away from the restaurants and supermarkets I’d frequented throughout my bored teenage life.
It was chilling because it meant I’d clearly never researched Calais beyond what the outside world had told me. My parents had their own political opinions but I wasn’t exactly a news-aware teen: I’d felt no desire to educate myself about global happenings that weren’t directly pushed my way.
Now I look at photos from those Calais trips which Mum took happily from the passenger seat of my dad’s car. I’ll never know if she was aware of the refugees living in squalor nearby.
Seeing the same place in a different way
Because of that week in Syria I now have a handful of ‘before’ images, both mental and photographical, to combat those showing the country’s destruction all over the news.
I still feel uneasy about publishing photographs from pre-war Syria. I know it could easily be taken the wrong way – like utilising an abhorrent situation for the sake of blog traffic – and if you think that’s what I’m doing then I wholeheartedly apologise. But that is absolutely not my intention.
To forget what Syria used to be like is to insult the millions who have called the country home: the millions who have died and been displaced as a result of a civil war that still rages on. And it’s also illustrative of a lack of faith that things will eventually change.
How much can a country change in a few years?
In 1991, one of my closest friends escaped with her family from Bosnia & Herzegovina during the Yugoslav Wars. They lived with nuns in Italy for a while until they found more permanent homes: her cousins and aunt in the United States, my friend and her mum in London. She was three years old.
Last summer I stood in a church in the centre of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and watched her get married. The same city that in my lifetime and hers was besieged for over a year has now become one of Europe’s hottest tourist destinations – and I’d hazard a guess that lots of those tourists in their mid-twenties or younger don’t remember much about the Yugoslav Wars, either.
People’s memories are malleable by default. It’s probably a good thing, particularly when tourist dollars contribute hugely to rebuilding infrastructures of countries affected by earthquakes and tsunamis, wars and political unrest.
Places change. They recover. While I’d never naively say “Syria will probably get better eventually!” with zero expertise on the topic, history does show us that civil wars end, citizens pick themselves up, and slowly the localised world tries to get back to a semblance of its former, normal self.
I hope against hope that this is something on the horizon for Syria and its people.
While writing this article, I had to check the differences between perspective and perception – and in my research I found this article, which ends with the following:
“Putting oneself in another’s perspective changes our perception of life. It is the perception of our reality that governs the perspective towards our life. The question where do our perspectives come from? In fact, they come from our perceptions.”
“We break our perceptions to make our perspectives.”
I think we could all do well to stick with this idea.