Into the City of Jasmine

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Date palms, false memories, secret books, anarchic traffic, hidden missiles, apple tobacco, precarious tea, diphtherial water, hüzün & Damascus.


I entered Syria through the port city of Latakia, on a ferry from Cyprus that no longer operates, and I stayed my first night in a hotel that, as best as I can tell, has since been destroyed.

It was evening, July 2010, the summer before the Arab Spring, and I walked my bicycle through the terminal and onto a main thoroughfare lined with date palms. The air hung heavy with black tea and exhaust. Kids kicked a soccer ball around a vacant lot. Couples strolled along the boardwalk, holding hands. Below, coils of razor wire wound through the rocks where the slow break of the Mediterranean lolled against shore.

All Latakia was celebrating the World Cup, and although Syria hadn’t even made it through the qualifiers, car horns cheered on the teams that were still playing. Apple-flavored hookah smoke rose in plumes along the street. Euro-pop songs played from a distant window.


I experienced the traveler’s conceit: that great food amounts to authentic experience. I rode out of Latakia with the conviction that I had done something meaningful with my time.


On my first night in Syria, I listened to the rhythm of that music for a long time, as if the bass held a clue to help me understand why I had come. I didn’t speak Arabic. I don’t like crowds. Still, I sensed that here—among the rose bushes and palm trees lining the streets, amid the duality of headscarves and miniskirts, the illegal internet cafés and Koran sellers, the burger joints and open-air spice markets, the concrete high-rises and ancient ruins—I could find a sort of tranquil balance, and perhaps even locate that same sense of equilibrium in myself.

Now it is too late, and making sense of a country’s happiness a decade into civil war is a frivolous task. My memories of welcoming people and serene cities feel like lies. My photographs of an antediluvian countryside confuse me. All I retain are disjointed scenes from a two-week vacation on a bicycle, recollections burdened by a helpless guilt, as if I am sifting through the photographs of a smiling family days before a fatal accident.

I think: I was young. Selfish. I have not traveled abroad since.

Compass Rose

The most popular reason for travel—wandering as a means of escape—might also be the most foolish. When my girlfriend of three years left me two weeks before we were to depart for a bicycle trip through Greece, I was, stereotypically, crushed. I started reading too much poetry, and came across the claim that Turks and Arabs harbor a collective melancholy, something they called hüzün.

The idea fit my mood. In 2010, Syria had not yet hit a critical level of chaos, and my friend Bassam, a Syrian American, suggested that family he was staying with in Damascus would love to have me to visit.

I sent off my passport, received the visa thirty-six hours before takeoff and flew to Istanbul with my bicycle in a box. I spent a few weeks pedaling through Anatolian wheat fields, a few days taking in Turkish Cyprus and shortly disembarked on the coast of Syria.

A student on the ferry approached me as we waited for customs agents to arrive.

“You have American passport?” he asked.

I said I did. He laughed.

“You will wait. But it is likely they will give you tea.”

Compass Rose

M   y first morning in Syria, I walked to a street vendor and bought falafel, the only word in Arabic I knew with certainty. It came smothered in tahini and mayonnaise, and the bread had been warmed through with grease. I experienced the traveler’s conceit: that great food amounts to authentic experience. I rode out of Latakia with the conviction that I had done something meaningful with my time.

Traffic is notoriously bad in the Arab world, but I didn’t know how bad until I hit a roundabout on the edge of town. Four lanes of traffic spun around the circle with no regard for the direction from which they entered, cars and motorbikes honking in an anarchic mass.


Still, I sensed that here—among the rose bushes and palm trees lining the streets, amid the duality of headscarves and miniskirts, the illegal internet cafés and Koran sellers, the burger joints and open-air spice markets, the concrete high-rises and ancient ruins—I could find a sort of tranquil balance, and perhaps even locate that same sense of equilibrium in myself.


I found myself crammed against a billboard of the presidential family, with Bashar al-Assad and his kids looking up toward the top of the sign, where his dead father was rimmed by angelic light beams, a benevolent expression on his face. I had heard back then that the younger Assad was kinder than his dad. People still remembered the Hama Massacre, which in 1982 left forty thousand dead.

Car horns rose to a tempest. A transport truck brushed against my saddlebags. Just then, I experienced a cultural phenomenon nearly as notorious as the traffic: Arab hospitality. A man shouted to me from his car window, and when I turned, his wife was reaching over from the passenger seat with a cup of tea. She balanced it on a saucer.

“Welcome!” cried the man, and he pushed the scalding teacup into my hands. As he handed me a cube of sugar, traffic began moving. Cars brushed by, knocked me sideways, and I shuffled forward, trapped by the clumsiness of my loaded bicycle. Tea spilled and burned my hands. The wife shouted for her cup back; the man shouted and kept driving away, and here I lost all sense of action. When I emerged on the highway, going south along the coast, I no longer held the teacup. Miraculously, I was still alive.

That afternoon I ate whole chickpeas, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers tossed with a bit of herb and lemon juice at an empty beach restaurant. The owner showed off his garden, and from the rows of beans and peppers I watched two men in straw hats cast their fishing nets into the nearby sea.

Later still, I pedaled past a collection of corrugated shacks along the beach. When I stopped to look at my map, a young man emerged from one of the homes and shouted for me to come in. “Chai, chai,” he said.

Inside, he boiled tea on a single burner balanced on a driftwood plank. We sat in lawn chairs and smiled at one another with the helpless looks of two people who don’t speak the same language. He was from Palestine—a refugee. I asked to take his picture, and when the negatives were developed, which wasn’t until after Syria had become a war zone, I studied his face for a long time. It seemed that, in the photo, the young man’s eyes blazed with animus.

Compass Rose

Spiritualists and travelers share this in common: both are envied for their fantasies. We applaud the madmen and women who flee the familiar in search of solace. Saint Mary of Egypt spent forty years in the Syrian Desert repenting for her past as a prostitute. Jalluladin Rumi circled a pole in his garden for a decade, reciting poetry to honor his murdered friend Shams. East-obsessed Herman Hesse wrote that “the whole of world history often seems to me nothing more than a picture book which portrays humanity’s most powerful and senseless desire—the desire to forget.”

I wanted to forget an ex-girlfriend, but by then I had figured out that bicycling alone through a foreign country is a pretty dumb way to get over a breakup.

Still, few places allow the traveler to forget the familiar and act out their Arabian Nights fantasies like Damascus. When I pedaled into the Syrian capital on a wave of traffic and bad directions, the line between real and fantasy blurred, and I felt the conviction that I had discovered the source of authentic experience. The vestiges of home—and my ex-girlfriend—finally slipped away.

At the gate to the Old City, a turbaned sheik smoked a cigarette below a statue of Salahaddin slaying an infidel. Nearby, the Barada River, which has kept Damascus alive for more than eight thousand years, trickled over the worn stones of an archeological dig; plastic bottles rode by on the riffles.

In the stone alleys near the Umayyad Mosque, sellers crouched over wares spread on carpets in front of them, daring passersby to explore their secrets. Men hung ancient lanterns over the arches leading back to spice stands mounded high with cumin and cardamom, Hungarian paprika and Eritrean salt. The bazaar was a maze, with stands of Turkish delight, pistachios, and raw goat meat; aisles of colorful scarves and gauzy cloth; stalls of fake sunglasses and used cell phones. I passed robed Saudi tourists and Palestinians with checkered turbans, women who veiled even their eyes and men in fez who carried backpacks that dispensed black tea. I fingered carpets from Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and China. I walked into shops full of tarnished lamps, shops of gold and silver, pipe shops, coffee shops, tea shops, leather shops, furniture shops, pillow shops, suit shops and shops that sold lingerie with bangles hanging from the lacy brassieres and red leather thongs. “Some cities oust or smother their past,” writes Colin Thubron. “Damascus lives in hers.”


All I retain are disjointed scenes from a two-week vacation on a bicycle, recollections burdened by a helpless guilt, as if I am sifting through the photographs of a smiling family days before a fatal accident.


Damascus, I think, thrives on its own mythos. Here, men still make a living telling stories in the tea shops. Artists don’t concern themselves with artistic movements; rather, they seek to render the Almighty on canvas. Or so I believed.

Along the carpet-seller’s street, I met the art dealer Ahmet, who had bad teeth and a tiny whitewashed shop dug into the wall like a catacomb. He had hundreds of original works, all variations on the same themes: veiled women with saccharine eyes; silhouetted camel caravans crossing the desert under a single star; minarets jabbing up through the sandy haze of an oasis. Ahmet watched me scrutinize a scene.

“Painting is like a first love. You think it is everything, but when it gets stale, it is no good. You must learn new techniques, change your eye, and it will be like real love, like a real painting.”

He flipped through the stacks and pulled out two paintings of alleyways in the Christian quarter.

“Fawaz al-Bibi,” said Ahmet. “He is the best. I talk all the time with Fawaz al-Bibi. I say, ‘Why do you not paint the mosque or the dervish?’ He will not paint the mosques. He said it is not good for him. Al-Bibi is Druze, and so—no mosque!”

The Druze are private, proud and esoteric. Their beliefs are passed down through secret books read only by the initiated. In some translations, Druze refers to “those who study.”

The paint on the work of Fawaz al-Bibi had been applied with both knife and brush. He had created shadows where there should be light, light where I expected shadow. I know little of art, but his brick archways, his teetering balconies and the phantom figures, who appeared only through the vaguest silhouettes, floated away from the painting, descending deeper into those mysterious alleys of the artist’s Damascus. He had captured hüzün in the grey and brown of his scene, revealed what Orhan Pamuk says is the “life and history of the city in reverse.” Al-Bibi seemed to me an artist who understood the duality of his people. The painted globs of grey stones hid the faiths of five thousand years, and hid also the artist’s own faith in God.

Compass Rose

I have since read that most Damascene artists have left Syria. A few have found galleries, in cities like Dubai, Beirut and Toronto, to show their work. Some have started new projects; they stretch military uniforms for canvas and paint images of guns, cemetery crosses, grey tones of an old city wall ripped through with crimson. The exiles paint in proxy studios, their work furious and immediate, artistic acts of protest or catharsis.

I bought two paintings. After the trip, I hung them over my desk back home. Sometimes I still get lost in them: I pretend that the paintings contain the pain of a now-ruined city, that they will teach me what has been lost in the war. I conjure a memory just outside the time-worn streets depicted in the frames.


Nearby, the Barada River, which has kept Damascus alive for more than eight thousand years, trickled over the worn stones of an archeological dig; plastic bottles rode by on the riffles.


In this memory, I am pedaling along the coast, north of the Lebanon border, and I see a sign in English that reads “Phoenician Ruins.” I follow the road past hothouses filled with tomatoes, spin beyond the edge of the farmlands and up a hill to a gravel parking lot with a sign in Arabic. I am alone. Enormous burial towers jut up from the field, pink sandstone pockmarked by millennia of salt breeze.

I leave my bicycle to find an angle for a photograph. The Mediterranean Sea swirls against the cliffs a kilometer away, and I can just hear the surf as I step over the thorny plants that have fractured the temple foundation. My hand runs across the flesh of an ancient pillar.

Suddenly camouflage netting stretches toward me, spilling from the excavated ruins of Marathos. Hidden under the mesh are a dozen surface-to-air missiles. It is like a bad action movie. I tuck my camera under my shirt and back down the hill slowly. When I reach the highway, I pedal for fifty kilometers. I do not stop.

Compass Rose

I remember those missiles as a scene disconnected from the rest of the journey. Most of my photographs depict tea sellers and children, families on aged carpets and men leaning against old cars or over rows of ancient lamps—images that fit with what I had expected to find in Syria, pictures of the exotic. But now, looking back, I want to know what I missed.

In Damascus, I spent a morning near the Grand Bazaar’s spice alley, in a small souq filled with perfumists. A young man at the al-Ghabra perfume shop called me over.

Vials of essential oils lined the shelves: white musk, lavender, gardenia, citrus, jasmine. “The oils come from Paris. I mix them. Or I buy the mix and add the alcohol,” said Anas, the shopkeeper.


Inside, he boiled tea on a single burner balanced on a driftwood plank. We sat in lawn chairs and smiled at one another with the helpless looks of two people who don’t speak the same language.


With a glass syringe, Anas extracted a few milliliters of essence and injected it into an ornate bottle. With another syringe, he added alcohol. He swirled the mixture once, twice, three times. He added three drops of sandalwood extract.

“The fixative,” he said.

He said he could teach me to mix perfumes if I would help him learn English euphemisms. I made him a list: kick the bucket, mad as a hornet, bite the dust, the last straw.

He taught me which essences—notes—pair well together. Rosemary balances geranium; artemisia complements patchouli. I learned how to blend the fixative to make the scents last longer. That seemed the important part: getting the power of these smells to linger after the wearer had gone. Making perfume felt like a hopeful act, as if the right blend could resurrect love that had been lost.

Compass Rose

I met my friend Bassam next to the statue of Salahaddin outside the citadel. We hadn’t seen each other in several years—since college, where he had been the host of an annual spring party dubbed “Bassam-a-palooza,” which had included a bluegrass band and several kegs of beer.

“Merhaba!” he cried, and swallowed me in a bear hug. Bassam is a large man. We walked to an ice cream parlor in the Old City.

“It has the best ice cream in the world. Bill Clinton came here when he visited,” Bassam told me. At Bakdash’s Parlor, people maneuvered the queue for an ice cream cone. I had tapioca root with pistachios on top. It was good ice cream. There was a photograph of Bill Clinton on the wall.

We caught up on the latest college gossip at a café near the Christian quarter that dated to the Mamluk era.

“Alex Carter almost shot his roommate in the foot. He bought some German pistol and was waving it around when it accidentally went off,” said Bassam.

“How drunk was he?” I asked. We were laughing so loudly that other customers began to glare.

“Very drunk.”

It was warm out and we wandered from square to square, eating sweet desserts and street food and smoking nargile. We laughed at old memories, but it felt strange to recall clichéd college experiences. Lost in the magic of Damascus, I forgot to even mention my recent breakup.


The painted globs of grey stones hid the faiths of five thousand years, and hid also the artist’s own faith in God.


“I think I could probably just live here for a while,” said Bassam. “Teach English, smoke hookahs, relax.”

Bassam had been spending a lot of time with his cousins. They were building a weekend home on the edge of the city, and the next evening his cousin Fatih drove us out to the half-finished house to watch a World Cup match and to swim in the newly finished swimming pool. We talked construction: plumbing, electricity, finish carpentry. Fatih thought the work would be done before winter.

“We have the pool ready first; that is the most important,” said Fatih. We swam, and I reveled in all the kindness and potential.

Compass Rose

One afternoon, Bassam and I took a bus to Homs so we could visit a Crusader castle. Crac du Chevalier had been built on a high mountaintop and had once held two thousand people, plus chickens, goats, horses, manure, chamber pots, bad food, diphtherial water and not a single bathtub.

“A thousand years and it still smells disgusting,” Bassam said.

Crac du Chevalier was made by men who refused to be conquered, men who could hold back Salahaddin’s army, but who in the end became homesick. They left the moats, cathedrals and guard towers to crumble with time. But a fortress this formidable doesn’t fall easily. Staircases climbed and descended like an Escher painting, and I thought that, with a little work, the place could be livable again soon.


I passed robed Saudi tourists and Palestinians with checkered turbans, women who veiled even their eyes and men in fez who carried backpacks that dispensed black tea.


Three years later, in 2013, moderate rebel forces would take up residence there, and the government would spend several weeks fighting for control of this ancient fortress. More than two dozen people would be killed.

For Bassam and me, the castle brought back the fantastic dreams of our childhoods. We played Robin Hood and King Richard and fought great battles along looming passages.

“Die, infidel!” Bassam shouted.

“Perish, heathen!” I yelled. A group of Asian tourists saw us jousting with our imaginary swords and asked to take our picture. We quit playing and moved on.


Making perfume felt like a hopeful act, as if the right blend could resurrect love that had been lost.


That night we went with Fatih to the hills above Damascus to see the city at night. We smoked nargile and ate plates of pita, hummus, tomatoes and cucumbers. Fatih laughed at us while we again told stories about college, when we’d once head-butted each other at a party, and had, another time, been thrown out of a bar on a Sunday morning.

“Sometimes I am glad I do not live in America. I think it is too intense for me,” said Fatih.

Compass Rose

There are three Christian villages in the hills above Damascus—Jabadeen, Sarka and Maalula—and these three towns still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. I left my bicycle at the hotel, took a bus to Maalula for the afternoon and visited the monastery of Saint Thecla.

Thecla was an early disciple who traveled with Saint Paul. Her mother told her she was to be wed, and she refused. Thecla’s mother became furious, and a court arrested Thecla and sentenced her to be burned at the stake. As the flames leapt about her, a thunderstorm came and extinguished the fire. She fled the city, but, outside of Antioch, a nobleman named Alexander attempted to rape her along a highway. She fended off his violence, but he became enraged and ordered her arrested again. According to the Acts of Thecla, a text that has circulated through Christianity for 1,700 years, the governor threw Thecla into a pit of wild beasts, but the female animals protected her from the males, and she again survived. In some versions, God delivers Thecla from martyrdom with a pillar of fire.

Saint Thecla moved to the desert, taught there for many years and reached the age of ninety. But pagan leaders became angry at her preaching and ordered Roman troops to arrest her. They chased the old woman to the base of a cliff. She prayed to God; he split apart the sandstone, and Saint Thecla died chaste and blessed by the Lord.

At the monastery, I paid a nun for a candle, and she led me into a chapel that had been carved into a cliff. I recited a prayer—more from habit than communion—lit my candle and left the damp of the nave. I exited the monastery through the fissure by which the saint had escaped the Romans, coiling through rock ramparts until I emerged into sunshine at the edge of a farmer’s field.

At a café near the Catholic Church, I overheard a conversation.

“Did you know Mel Gibson was wrong?” said a British tourist. “According to people here, the language they used in the movie was a Syriac dialect. Very different from Aramaic.”

“Who cares?” said a second man. “That movie was terrible.”

The young waitress rolled her eyes.


I exited the monastery through the fissure by which the saint had escaped the Romans, coiling through rock ramparts until I emerged into sunshine at the edge of a farmer’s field.


The day was calm, warm. The landscape around Maalula seemed imbued with balance; in a region known for religious conflict, I didn’t sense any strife. Just an ancient sense that the land contained powerful knowledge. I took the evening bus back to Damascus, convinced that I had discovered the etymology of prayer.

In a year or two, the jihadist group al Nasra would begin harassing Christians in the area. Assad’s forces would shell the town and kill twenty-five civilians. Rebels would kidnap the nuns from the monastery, hold them for ransom along the Iraq border.

“Whoever does not believe will not live but will die forever,” said Saint Thecla to the magistrate before he ordered her burned. In war, and in faith, deliverance comes by fire.

When fighting ended, out of 3,300 residents, only fifty remain in Maalula. I ache for the impotence of language.

Compass Rose

The semifinals of the World Cup were played between Germany and Spain while I was in Damascus, and someone at my hotel secured an invitation to watch the match at the German Embassy. The Germans were so excited about the game that I wasn’t even asked for identification when I entered the compound. Everywhere, people drank thick beers and ate sausages dipped in bowls of mustard. In the space of a taxi ride, I had departed the Levant for a biergarten in Munich.

I met a woman named Cate at the party. Cate, a Canadian, had hopped buses up from Cairo.

“Did you get butterflies in your stomach before you came to the Middle East?” she asked. Before I could answer, she said, “I got them. God, it was a good feeling.”

I asked her, “Why Syria?” It was the same question I would be asked by customs agents on my flight home.

“People ask me what I’m running from all the time,” Cate said. She frowned. “But I’m not running. I just can’t explain why I love this life.”


Meanwhile, people with “ordinary lives” would revolt against a dictator, and where I had played games in the hallways of Crac du Chevalier, dead bodies would be left to rot.


Spain scored a goal, and the German diplomats groaned. An emissary wife came around with chocolate-and-cherry tarts—a family recipe. I poured myself another beer. Outside on the street, cars and motorbikes circled the embassy, cheering and taunting, honking and waving flags.

“Maybe we’re hopeless romantics. The grass is always greener, you know?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I think we need people who are content with having ordinary lives. Otherwise we’d probably drift off the earth.”

“Yeah,” I replied, and that far-flung explorer in my head, the one searching the edges of the map, shriveled.

I was a tourist, a pseudo-spiritualist pedaling through a hookah haze of self-deception. I would lose touch with Bassam and his family. The Syria I was visiting would become a checkmark in the world atlas, one more story to recite as proof of my eccentricity. Meanwhile, people with “ordinary lives” would revolt against a dictator, and where I had played games in the hallways of Crac du Chevalier, dead bodies would be left to rot.


Clerics lounge in olivewood doorways; booksellers tender copies of the Koran gilded with gold; dried chickpeas and glass beads roll down onto the stones built upon stones built upon cities that stretch back to an era when even language was in its infancy.


The traveler who forges personal connections on a journey returns home and sees a news story. I know people there, he says. His voyage is authenticated, but he has mistaken emotion for knowledge. Thomas Merton, from The Wisdom of the Desert: “Either fly as far as you can from men, or else, laughing at the world and the men who are in it, make yourself a fool in many things.”

I called my ex-girlfriend that evening from my hotel, and she agreed to give our relationship one more chance. In two months, we would break up again, for good. I would feel the pain of that loss with less uncertainty than I would watching Syria’s descent into chaos from afar, as a stranger who had deluded himself into thinking he understood.

Compass Rose

M      aybe it came from the light, inextricable from the alleys and desert, but what made Syria seem so filled with ancient magic has to do, I think, with mystery—that is, mystery at its origin, where it means mastery, initiation and mistress. In Western culture, we haven’t retained the complex tenets of the mysterious, but in a world of souqs and mosques, scented with jasmine and incense, where Druze and Muslim and Christian pray in labyrinthine streets, mysticism still remains. Clerics lounge in olivewood doorways; booksellers tender copies of the Koran gilded with gold; dried chickpeas and glass beads roll down onto the stones built upon stones built upon cities that stretch back to an era when even language was in its infancy. The high-rises on the edge of the city, the cell phones and cars and light bulbs all vibrate against the colossal wave of civilization begun here untold millennia ago. The world grows outward from Damascus.

I remember riding in Fatih’s car down a cobbled street as he talked about the Syrian wedding ceremony. He described a five-day party where the men and women never see one another, where the groom is symbolically kidnapped by his friends and where the bride and her attendants protect the mysteries of their sex while the men sing in the street.

“We don’t ever see what the women are doing,” said Fatih. “It’s always been this way.”

Compass Rose

I left the city at night, by bus. I took the wheels off my bicycle, loaded it into the luggage compartment and slept all the way to the Turkish border. I carried with me typical trinkets—a nargile pipe, a gilded Byzantine icon, the paintings by Fawaz al-Bibi.

Maybe I could have paid more attention: to the billboards of Bashir al-Assad looking to the heavens for help from his dead father. To the Palestinian boy, offering tea. To Fatih, when I mentioned world politics.

“We have to be careful with our conversation,” he had said, and glanced around while he stoked coals in the nargile.


The camels, the streets scented with myrrh, and the muezzin’s call to prayer had no more to do with a living antiquity than an envelope does with the letter it holds.


Probably we learn the same thing from opening our eyes to the unfamiliar as we learn from the prayers we offer on a pilgrimage. Had I looked closer, I might have crawled to the tip of the forged steel blade that is Syria and witnessed a country on the brink of her own collapse. I might have realized the difference between literary hüzün and the rage stirring through the country.

Had I looked closer, it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.

The fact is, I didn’t discover any truths about Syria. I had bicycled the desert and wandered the streets to sift through my own problems, and now that bombs have destroyed so much, I can’t recall enough of the country to even know what to lament.

The traveler’s conceit as pathetic façade: I replaced reality with the stereotype of the Orient. I saw dervishes and djinns where there were soldiers and rebels, imagined harems and hamams instead of insurrections. The camels, the streets scented with myrrh, and the muezzin’s call to prayer had no more to do with a living antiquity than an envelope does with the letter it holds.

Since my visit, eleven million people—over half the country—have been displaced from their homes. Almost five hundred thousand more—a number as large as the populations of Minneapolis, Kansas City or Cleveland—are dead. Damascus, the city Mark Twain claimed “measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble,” has been ruined. Like the rest of the world, I’ve learned to ignore the news footage, the rubble-strewn streets and the millions of people pressing against violence that has drawn on now for a decade. My memories, so vivid with the magic of the Orient, have been supplanted by the convolutions of a war waged in the name of too many ideologies.

I no longer believe that Damascus harbored some collective nostalgia. I spent the long hours on my bicycle lamenting my failed relationship back home; I might have cried for the land instead. I might have wondered: must a civilization go to war to know the difference between pleasure and fear?

Compass Rose

W      hat remains for me is the bicycle I once rode into the desert and a pair of paintings on my wall. That empowered feeling—the pride that comes when a traveler believes they have penetrated a knowledge not theirs to possess—is gone. I rifle through my memories, and the same image appears. It has clarified with time.

There is a boy, just learning to walk. His family crouches near the wall of the Umayyad Mosque with a basket of food. Hundreds of Syrian flags hang overhead, fluttering on stretched wires. The family is having a picnic. While the mother prepares lunch, the child toddles into a nearby flock of pigeons. The birds squawk, rise, land again; they want the food in the basket. The boy giggles and charges in a second time. At last the father scoops up the child and the family leaves. The pigeons loiter for another minute maybe, and then, in a rush of wings that sweeps across the courtyard, I watch the birds rise above the bazaar and depart.


John Messick is a professor of English at Kenai Peninsula College in Soldotna, Alaska. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Alaska Dispatch News, Tampa Review, Superstition Review, Terrain.org and others. In 2013, he was awarded the AWP Intro Writer’s Award in Nonfiction.

Lead image: Mohamed Nohassi

Inline images: John Messick

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