Travel Weekly's Jeri Clausing is on a press trip to Syria. Her first dispatch follows.
"You are welcome."
The first time a Damascus shopkeeper said that to me I paused, knowing I hadn’t thanked him for anything. Then I remembered he had asked me where I was from. When I said America, he said, "You are welcome."
It was a phrase I heard repeatedly as I wandered old Damascus, and it seemed sincere.
It’s not that I didn’t expect to feel welcome. I had in fact read about how friendly the Syrians are. But I never know what to expect when traveling – especially in the Middle East.
And I was especially unsure how we would be received as part of the first official delegation of North American journalists invited to Syria’s Silk Road Festival.
It’s an annual event where the country sponsors travel writers to celebrate its role along the historical trade route.
Because of tensions between the U.S. and Syria, North Americans have never been invited to the event, which has been held for about eight years.
Since President Obama took office, efforts have been made to improve relations with Syria, but trade sanctions imposed by the Bush administration remain.
One of our first official stops was a press conference with Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari.
"This is one of the countries where the difference between the perception and the reality is very stark," Dardari told the 200 journalists from around the world. "We would love to see Americans coming to Syria and seeing the country and going home to tell more people about it."
There are many things Americans don’t know about Syria, he said.
"For example, do Americans really know that Syria is the cradle of Christianity?" he asked? "Do they know what it means to be on the road to Damascus? Do they know they can actually go see the road to Damascus and walk on it?"
Indeed, the history is this country is astounding. From the mountain where the Biblical Cain killed his brother Abel to Roman ruins and the temple-turned-church-turned-mosque where the head of John the Baptist is preserved, there is no shortage of historical sights.
After our press conference at the ministry we spent the afternoon wandering the streets of Old Damascus, eating lunch at restaurant tucked in a maze of winding alleys and shopping in the souks.
The city reminded me a bit of Cairo, although a bit less crowded and a little cleaner. It also feels quite safe, although like any big city there is crime. One of the members of our group had her wallet taken from her purse.
Later that day, however, when another woman got separated from the group, two young men helped her find a cab then escorted her back to the hotel. The cab driver refused her money, proving that at least in some Syrians' eyes, Americans truly are welcome.