The single most common reaction we get when we tell people that we’re travelling to Syria is something along the lines of “is that really appropriate?”, and before we started travelling to Syria it was a genuine concern. They’re just emerging from seven years of war, and while millions of Syrians are trying to escape the destruction, devastation and death that’s enveloped their country, here we are trying to enter it.
Some see travelling to Syria as “dark tourism”, which is an increasingly popular phenomenon in the world, and simultaneously, increasingly disparaged. It’s featured in several articles recently published in high profile journals and newspapers, and it certainly is something that should be carefully considered. However dark tourism implies an intention to gawk at the horrendous, and just because somewhere is coming out of war, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to it.
First and foremost, we waited until the crisis had subsided before exploring Syria as tourists. Visiting an active war zone is a different question, and not what we’re doing in Syria. When travelling to Syria, it’s not the process of destruction itself that we seek, but rather the rebuilding of the towns, cities and societies, and how people are coping in the aftermath. Syria is at a unique point in its history, and although it might not seem like as pleasant a time as plenty of others, it’s still a valuable part of their story and shouldn’t be ignored.
I think most importantly one should respect the opinion of locals; the people who are there and have lived through it and experienced it themselves, and during our journeys in Syria there hasn’t been a single person we’ve met who wasn’t over the moon and extremely proud that we were there. They’re just really excited to see us – foreigners who’ve come to see what the Syrian people want to show the world, their hospitality, their culture and history and their still beautiful country.
Before the war, Syria was always talked about as one of the most scenic and hospitable countries in the Middle East. Obviously it was a huge hit to their pride to all of a sudden be pariahs, largely excluded from the world community, so in a country that seriously needs a confidence boost and a bit of a hand getting on their own two feet again, welcoming tourists is a huge step in the right direction.
Most people around the world want to help when countries go through these dramatic periods of turmoil, whether it be war, natural disasters or political upheaval. There are plenty of ways that we try to support and assist them, but what is a better form of help than literally going to the country, supporting the re-emerging small businesses, listening to the people and their stories, and just showing appreciation and gratitude for their amazing hospitality.
When travelling through Syria you’ll see shop owners who are physically rebuilding their shops brick by brick with their own hands because they want to get back to work and support their family. I don’t know a better way to help him than to buy something from his shop and a little chat and a smile can also go a long way.
They know that the whole world’s pointing fingers at them, and they feel horribly excluded. A student in Damascus recounted to me that before the war foreigners didn’t know much about Syria, except for Palmyra. Now everyone in the world knows Syria, but it’s all about daesh (ISIS), rebels, dictatorship, sanctions, war and destruction. Just the simple fact of going there shows Syrians that we’re not against them all, we don’t think they’re all evil terrorists, and it helps them feel like normal people again, accepted in the world.
The Syrian people are desperate to step back into the 21st century, to show off their amazing culture, to demonstrate to the world that they can be incredibly hospitable, and to stop being thought of as the country you’ve only seen in the news in reports about daesh. What better way is there to help them do that than to get there and experience the country for yourself.