It’s been almost two decades to the day since I took my first trip into Syria. If you believe in coincidences, then it was a most remarkable coincidence indeed. Because, that summer, I was intending to go to Jerusalem at the end of the archeological dig in which I took part. It was also supposed to be my concluding trip to the Middle East, my last chance to understand the land of Jesus’ birth and death, my final opportunity to learn something about the people of the Holy Land.
Two days before the end of the dig, the travel agency called me to say that Canada and the US had put Jerusalem on a no-go list. My professor was thrilled. It would mean another pair of hands for the two weeks following the dig – another pair of hands to scrub pottery sherds, sort, label and pack, and it wasn’t going to cost her a cent. Not only was I not going to Jerusalem, the main point of my having made this last trip, but I was going to spend two hot dusty boring weeks doing slave labour. My professor was thrilled. I certainly was not. The leader of an 8-person group headed for Syria invited me to come along with them instead. I knew absolutely nothing good about Syria, but anything at all was going to be better than two weeks of menial work.
When we arrived in Damascus, our guide gave us a speech full of precautions: where we might go on our own, whom to trust, and whom to stay away from. One of his cautionary notes echoed what I had also heard on the dig in Jordan: stay away from the Bedouins. They are a dirty people, they are nomads, they are thieves, they are not to be trusted. They will happily kidnap any foreigner and, failing to get a decent ransom, will heartlessly murder them. In effect, the Bedouins are the gypsies of the Middle East in every way: feared, scorned and reviled. To make sure that we knew who he was talking about, Waleed pointed out a number of adults and children near the bus station. They were darker skinned than most others.
There were a good number of Bedouin men among the taxi drivers (no surprise there) and the majority of the children who ran about trying to sell sticks of gum were identified as Bedouins as well. When we began travelling into the country, he pointed out their dusty tents that seemed to be constructed of many pieces of woven rugs.
So we were well-informed as we went out. We recognized the moveable villages of tents around many of the ruins.
Then came the day when we arrived in Apamea. It was a blazing hot July morning, with not a cloud in the sky. My fellow travellers were all headed for the well-known mosaic museum at the outskirts of the ruins. I wanted to walk the streets of the town that had been the centre of philosophy and theology in the early days of Christianity. I wanted to get in touch with the essence of the place in my own imagination.
The bus dropped us off not far from the museum. Our guide chose to stay in the air-conditioned bus. So the nine of us walked together a little way. Suddenly I realized that I had left my water bottle behind. I turned around and discovered that the mini bus had left. With a mild curse, I told my fellow travellers of my dilemma. One of the boys laughed at me and said “Sucks to be you.”
I shrugged it off, turned my back on the group and started to walk up towards the tantalizingly close ruins. My map told me that there was a cafe at the top of the hill anyway.
After half an hour of steady trudging up and down the rolling hillocks under a relentless sun, it seemed that the ruins were not much closer. By now my mouth was dry, my feet felt like lead weights and I was developing a headache. I had to sit down on a rock alongside the narrow paved road. A shepherd taking his sheep up the hill looked at me curiously and a couple of his flock nudged at me as they ambled past. I got up and continued on, feeling worse and worse. Despite the heat of the day, I started to feel cold. A couple of Bedouin boys zoomed by on bicycles and I got scared. The museum had disappeared from view some time ago. I could get into serious trouble and nobody would know. I sat down again, trying to decide whether to go on toward the still distant and unseen cafe or to turn back. I was feeling very dizzy.
Up the hill to one side of the road stood a Bedouin tent, its colourful flaps snapping in a breeze that came nowhere near where I was sitting.
I was about to get up and trudge on up the hill when a little girl in raggedy clothes ran out of the tent. She froze as soon as she saw me. Then she ran back inside. I turned back to the road and tried to swallow. But all I got was a sore sandpaper feeling in the back of my throat.
I heard a woman’s voice behind and above me and looked over my shoulder. An elderly woman dressed in voluminous clothes that were only marginally better than those of the little girl stood just outside the shadow of the tent, making sweeping motions with her right hand. Thirst and fear fought with each other in my head and heart. Fear won out. I turned my face away. Then I heard the voice again and looked back. The old woman looked at me and said something to the little girl. The little one bounced down the hill and stopped just a few feet away. She smiled shyly and reached out to touch my hand. She said something I couldn’t understand and then tugged my hand. I hesitated and then she said something that made me smile. “Yella,” she said. “Let’s go.”
By the time we got to the top of the hill, a glass of water was waiting for me. The old woman placed it in the palm of her right hand and offered it to me like a gift.
No water has ever tasted sweeter than that.
The woman gestured that I should sit just inside the roof of the tent and then she poured me hot sweet tea, a wise drink in such hot dry weather for it helps the body to perspire and cool down. She pulled out pictures of her family, and using gestures showed me her son and her daughter-in-law, the parents of this little girl. The little one pointed out her big brothers in the picture, using her hands too. I reached into my backpack and pulled out the photos of my three girls. The exclamations from the woman sounded complimentary and we looked at each other and laughed. Both of them talked to me, though I could not understand a single word. The old woman swept her arm across the vista from the top of the hill. I only guessed that she telling me what a beautiful view we had. By the second glass of hot tea, I felt much better. I reached into my backpack again to pay her for the tea. The old woman tossed her head imperiously and pushed my hand firmly back into my backpack. Then she scowled at me in mock anger, her eyes still smiling. She wanted nothing from me.
The hated, feared, reviled Bedouin, a woman who knew full well that she was not trusted reached out her hand to me that day, to a complete stranger who could never ever thank her properly. To me, she has become the epitome of the good Samaritan: an enemy to be avoided at all costs, willing to help without recompense.