We almost didn't go to Palmyra, arguably Syria's most famous tourist site, because it's just Roman ruins, and not to sound too
, but once you've seen one set of Roman ruins, you've seen them all--that was kind of the point of that whole empire thing, after all. And, having seen Jordan's ruins earlier in the summer, I had had enough of columns, carvings, and concrete.
Or basalt, in the case of Umm Qeis.
I forget why we decided to go; I think we just woke up in the morning and thought, ah, what the heck. So we hopped on a bus and headed out into the desert, a decision we wouldn't regret: Palmyra's ruins, and especially their setting, are pretty spectacular.
More spectacular, though, were the people we met: first, a Bedouin family that lived in a tent near the ruins; as we walked past, their kids ran out to beg for pens, and then invited us in for a drink and a chat. They spoke a dialect of Arabic unfamiliar to me, with the palatal affricates of Iraqi Arabic and the voiced uvular stops of Bedouin Arabic, but they were patient, and so with lots of repeating, we spent about an hour there, discussing everything from how much our shoes cost (too much) to how we remove leg hair (I shave, Amy waxes) to why we're not married (no good men). I think this last answer is where we really made friends: as it turns out, we were hanging out with a mother, her five children, and her beautiful-but-unmarried sister-in-law, who clicked her tongue in recognition at my answer. No good men, indeed.
Or maybe just a few good men: after touring the ruins, we stopped into a cafe in town for drinks and lunch. The owner was either super friendly or super bored, which means he fell in love with us instantly and insisted that we spend hours there, drinking water and talking about sex. Apparently, they don't call it Pal
myra for nothing.
Before things got weird with the sex talk, this guy, unsurprisingly, offered us tea, and when we refused, said, surprisingly, "What, are you Mormon or something?"
My jaw dropped-- the Church practically doesn't exist in the Middle East, and no one all summer had had any idea what kind of crazy religion would forbid me tea. I asked how he know, and he gave some vague response about a large group of Mormons who had come through Palmyra a few years before. "They spoke Arabic, too," he said. "They had been studying in Egypt or something."
It didn't take much to put two and two together: a large group of Mormons studying in Egypt who had come through Palmyra a few years ago. "Do you remember their names?" I asked. "Was there a Kaitlyn? Maybe a Ken? Or a Stephen?"
And yes, indeed: this Palmyran restaurant owner had hosted my study abroad group back in 2004, when they traveled in Syria. He probably made them play dress-up with Bedouin robes too.
That was just the beginning of our random encounters with friends and friends-of-friends. We ran into someone I knew from Amman while walking towards the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. We walked into a restaurant in Petra only to see Chris, an archaeologist and the director of the center that hosted my program in Amman. At one of the Sunday evening concerts hosted by BYU's Jerusalem Center, we met an old acquaintance of mine from BYU. An in perhaps the funniest coincidence, a taxi driver in Amman who wanted to tell us all about the Americans he knows--a common, if overly hopeful, practice--actually knew a friend of mine. I was getting all ready to give the "how could I possibly know all 300 million Americans" spiel when I realized, hey, wait, Jeremy P.? Who has blond hair? And glasses? And speaks Arabic? Uh oh. Don't think this is typical! We don't all know each other, I swear!
It was a good trip for people, I'd say, both the people I knew before and the people we got to know: the aforementioned Bedouin family; the ever-so-kind restaurant manager in Hama, delighted to meet and greet Americans unafraid of traveling in Syria; the ever-so-kind hotel manager in Amman, excited at sharing a birthday with Amy
; the shop owners in Aleppo who attempted to seduce us with foul--yet hilarious!--language; the huge group of American pilots we hiked with in Petra; the Japanese couple we met in Palmyra, and bumped into again in Aleppo's Great Mosque and Damascus's Old City; the hotel manager in Damascus whose pro-Bush pro-war stance confused us until we learned he was Kurdish; the American backpacker we adopted briefly in Amman, finding him a taxi ride and hotel room; the Israeli Couch Surfer who put us up in Jerusalem for two nights for free; the friendly Iraqi tourists
at Crac des Chevaliers and Damascus with whom we talked a little bit about the war ("Do you have any relatives in the military? No? Thank God!"); and the teenage boys in Hama who entertained us for an afternoon, throwing themselves off a bridge into a lake, running around to see the pictures Amy had taken, shouting "faxxam
! Awesome!" and repeating. Awesome, indeed, kids. Awesome indeed.