1 month ago
My Syrian guide Bilal is also visiting Syria for the first time - even though he has been to all these places hundreds of times during his career in tourism. Let me explain.
On our way to the imposing hilltop citadel Krak Des Chevaliers, we had to drive through the town below. Today, houses on both sides of this road range from being pierced by bullet holes to completely collapsed from heavy shelling. The town is empty.
When we finally reached the castle, I asked him about the last time he’d been here, expecting him to say “a few months ago”. Instead, in a heavy tone, he said “eight years ago”. What this means is that his visit here with me is the first time he’s seeing Krak - and the town - since the war started. Both came under heavy fire between 2012-2013.
It’s the first time for him to see the town in ruin. A town he previously described as “full of life”. It’s the first time for him to see the castle in ruin. A castle now overgrown with wildflowers, some of its most beautiful parts collapsed under the fire of man-fired weapons among the purple blossom.
Today, huge round holes pierce the ceilings of the castle. Rubble sleeps alongside half-surviving halls and pillars, though the castle itself still stands, since the 11th century.
In my imagination, I could convince myself that the castle had always been like this, mostly a ruin, covered with weeds since it was abandoned, quiet and in a state of disrepair.
But as Bilal walked around the grounds in silence, I saw him picking flowers and herbs from the castle walls. He would raise them to his face and smell them, walking ahead of me, as if lost in deep meditation.
In his silence, and in his mind, I knew that he was walking through a different castle, in a different time.
I caught myself trying to cheer him up, exaggerating the features of the bombed-out citadel. I exclaimed how beautiful it was, how majestic - words that were met with only an enigmatic smile.
Really, I knew that whatever illusion I was attempting to communicate to him could not hold.
See, for Bilal, it was his first visit in eight years, but it might as well have been his first visit ever, to a very new place.