“Journeys are made by the people you travel with,” so goes the tagline of Malaysia Airlines.
On our travels across Syria three years ago in 2010, our guide Murhaf and driver Mohamed were our constant companions for two weeks. Murhaf was an archeology postgraduate student from Aleppo. This stood him in good stead as a part-time tourist guide. His immense knowledge of Syria’s ancient history gave our excursions great depth and insight. He even served as a consultant on a BBC documentary, for which he was paid well enough to afford him the purchase of a classic car.
On our rides from town to town, Murhaf would chat up a storm with Mohamed. I wish I understood Arabic because there was never a silent moment between the two.
I did not engage in conversations with Mohamed because of the language barrier, so know little about him. I remember him as a helpful man who took pride in his job.
Later that year, Murhaf visited Malaysia. It was a big trip for him and his worried father would call him every day. He had made many friends with Malaysians who travelled to Syria and never lacked a place to stay. the whole time he was here. Even his meals were taken care off by whoever was hosting him. Murhaf complained that he brought money but had no chance to spend it.
The next year, 2011, civil war broke out in Syria. We did not hear of Murhaf again until recently. Our travel group leader Lee Min shared some sad news from Murhaf. Mohamed and his wife had been killed, leaving two kids without their parents.
Murhaf is now volunteering in a refugee camp. The war has been very hard on everyone. They’ve lost homes, businesses and cars, but nothing can compare to losing one’s family and friends.
We’re doing what we can to send over contributions to help out with Mohamed’s children. This is an uphill task as all forms of communication are pretty much cut off if not restricted. Even bank accounts are frozen.
I feel fortunate and blessed to have visited Syria during that small window in time when there was peace. Not because it’s a beautiful and fascinating country rich in history and civilisation, but more for its wonderful people who were the most welcoming I’ve ever met in my years of travel.
The country has had a bad rap amongst Western countries for decades and while visitor numbers were picking up in the noughties, Asian faces were still rarely seen there. We would often attract attention wherever we went, especially out of the bigger cities like Damascus and Aleppo. Sometimes we felt like mini celebrities when curious locals asked to take pictures with us.
One time a few of us were chilling out in a town square when a teenager took an interest to Ah Kau, one of our older members. The boy would ask, “What is your name?” and then walk away. He would soon return with another question, “What is your father’s name?” This went on a few times until we took leave to spare our friend from the interrogation.
At the same place, a man who had been looking at us came up with his two young daughters who wanted to give my roommate Irene and I a little present – some fancy hair clips.
When I was buying a garland of dried miniature okra at the souk in Aleppo, a woman shopper helpfully shared a few recipes.
In Hama, Ro and I decided to check out the neighbourhood hammam. While the men were handled like dough by the staff at the hammam for males, our experience was different.
The female hammam was noisy as a market. It was obviously a place for the ladies to hang out and trade gossips. They were excited to have outside visitors and offered to wash our hair. We were passed from one group of bathers to another and my hair was washed so many times it squeaked.
These are some of the people I remember fondly because journeys are indeed made by the people we meet. Sometimes I wonder what have become of them. I dedicate this posting to the people of Syria. Our prayers are with you.