A Trip to Syria, Remembered

Billboard of Palmyra ruins, Syria, 2005
Billboard in Syria featuring Palmyra and the Assad family, 2005, via Wikimedia.

My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why.

Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil.

They read from Rumi in study groups and pointed out that this archway or this winding street was pre-Ottoman. I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.

It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syrian lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam. I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me and the truly hardcore.

In 2007, David Zoby bluffed his way into a slot on — what — it’s not exactly clear. An academic tour of Syria, complete with lectures and visits to the requisite historic sites, Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, of course. He remembers the journey in “Some Vague Stars to the South” on Nowhere.

Zoby’s memories aren’t an idealized view of the past.They’re a tangle of displacement created by his status on the trip, denial of his Syrian heritage, and that feeling of being in a place so far from home. It’s hard to read this piece without wondering when Syria will again be the kind of place travelers can go to get away from themselves.

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