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The Syria I knew

A long-ago encounter shows what stays, what fades.


Damascus, 1983: A shopkeeper (r.) urges passersby to buy suit material.

R. Norman Matheny/The Christian Science Monitor

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Latakia, coastal Syria, September 1982: It was twilight, night coming fast. I asked the clerk about buses to Damascus. One, he said, was leaving now. Across the yard, a mechanical brute coughed smoke and struggled for second gear.

Jumping onto slow-moving public transportation was a skill I'd honed after three months in Cairo. I sprinted over, ran alongside, and leapt for the open rear door.

Safely aboard, I stood and swayed, eyes adjusting to the unlit interior, hoping for a seat. No luck.


Then a young man in the last row smiled and made space for me.

Only when I sat down did I see that all the passengers around me wore uniforms. The bus was full of soldiers. They stared at the puzzled foreigner.

I told the smiling young man I thought this was the bus to Damascus.

It was, he said. The Army had commandeered it. Training exercises, he said. He introduced himself: Khalid was his name. He showed me family photos. He had two infant boys.


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