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  • Dear Farouq,

    We met on a cold December day in Damascus, over three years ago. It was cloudy, and possibly a little wet. My friend and I had been in the oldest city in the world for a day, maybe two. We had spent our time exploring the Old City, Umayyad Mosque and the labyrinthine souqs. On our way home, we heard a man – you – beckon to us from across the street.

    Now, normally I wouldn’t be responsive to strange men calling out to me from across the street, especially not as two young, female travelers. But what was a backpacking trip across the Middle East if not an adventure? Perhaps it was one too many Paul Theroux books, or the false security of low crime rates in the region. Perhaps we were reassured by your gray hair, your portentous belly, and your smiling face. At any rate, in all our naivete, we heeded the call.

    You gave us kibbeh and pastries, mu3ajanat, filled with cheese. And then we followed you to your friend’s shop, which sold not much more than a couple sad boxes of Lipton tea. We drank overly sweet tea, then equally sweet turkish coffee, and in the little English you knew and the little Arabic I knew, you told us about your life. You were once Mr. Syria, you said, proffering a grainy phone picture of a muscled man as evidence. You were of Russian-Turkish descent. You had four houses in Damascus, but an unhappy marriage. You believed, rather sincerely and repetitively, that Syrians loved all people from all around the world. We love everyone! Even Jews and Americans! you exhorted. There are no problems in Syria, you said. There is no poverty, no unemployment, only peace.We witnessed what appeared to be an illegal bird trade, cages brought into the back room, covered with thick cloths. We talked about world peace, the evils of George Bush, but the goodness of American people. You told us to visit the next day, that you would show us something special.

    We returned, again. The day was even colder. I remember because you had a hard time starting your ancient, sputtering white car. Where were we going? I asked. To one of your four houses, of course. Following a man into his car and to his home? Well, you seemed to be pretty harmless 'til now. We arrived at a nice suburban building after fifteen minutes. We walked up, floor after floor, wondering which was your apartment, until we reached the roof. There was a large concrete space, with a set of weights, and a tiny room in one corner. Welcome to my house! you exclaimed, ushering us into the room. It was overstuffed with bottles perfumes and plastic plants, lending a jungle theme to the entire affair. You plugged in the electric heater, but all it succeeded in doing was tripping the entire building’s fuse, causing everyone’s electricity to go out. Oops. We sat, waiting for you to turn the electricity back on, and waiting for our frozen cans of grape juice to melt. The sun went down, and you drove us back, but not without thrusting plastic roses into our hands first.

    On our last day in Damascus, we brought you and your friend some baklawa. You, in turn, wrote us your address in cramped, cursive Arabic, telling us to write. Farouq Halaq. Damascus, Street King Faisal, the building of Doctor Mo’men Tawashi, second floor. We promised to try that strange address, then we waved goodbye, and headed off.

    That was the last time I saw you, but far from the last time I thought of you. This series of pleasant but slightly awkward meetings proved to be one of the more memorable events of our trip, and became a staple story to tell of our wild adventures in a less-traveled, authoritarian country.

    Today, your country is in turmoil, and even an optimist like you wouldn’t be able to claim no problems and only peace in your country. I live across the border from you, a mere 4.5 hour drive from Damascus, and every day, more of your people pour into Jordan, seeking refuge from the violence and bloodshed. 200,000 now, scattered across the country, in the homes of relatives or newly constructed refugee camps. When I watch the news, I can’t help but think of you. The violence has reached Damascus and each time I see a grainy video, I squint to see if it is of King Faisal street, that little alley on the edge of the old city where we met, where your friend’s shop was, where you lived. Unfortunately, they all look the same – rows upon rows of concrete apartment blocks and scattered rubble.

    Do you still live there now? Are you, your four boys and one daughter safe? We tried to write from Aleppo, but the people at the post office scoffed at the idea of domestic mail, and I’m sure the postal system is the least of anyone’s priorities now.

    Dear Farouq, if I could speak to you, this is what I would say: I hope you are well. My Arabic is much better now, and who knows how many stories we could exchange. You are on my mind every time I read or watch the news. Thank you for taking us in, talking to us, and exhorting the value of international friendships. It is forever this memory upon which my impressions of Syrian and Syrians are based. Please be safe, please let you and your family and your friend and his illegal birds be safe, so someday, maybe, we can meet again on the streets of Damascus, and share another cup of thick coffee.

    Sincerely, your friend Jeanine.
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