At twenty two dollars my room was the most expensive I'd had in a while. I thought I'd flavour my entrance to the Syrian capital with a dose of luxury. Unfortunately, with no air con, no TV, and no private bathroom it definitely wasn't worth the price. Even access to BBC World in the living room area and the included breakfast didn't prevent me migrating to a hostel for the following two nights.
In the evening I strolled towards the old city, about half a kilometre to the east past the railway station. As soon as I entered the main covered bazaar I knew that in a crucial way the Syria I'd come to love was gone. The prevalence of other westerners was far higher. The inevitable effect on the locals was to make the likes of me both less of a curiosity, less of a novelty, and more of a focus for that kind of systematised, commercial targeting that always develops in tourist centres. I noted how the tremendously friendly, welcoming spirit of the Syrian people, though still in evidence, was less vivid, had become mixed with traces of an inauthenticity I hadn't felt before. This, no doubt, was born of a spirit of over-familiarity with the likes of I, a wearing away of that fascination for the strange and exotic which we westerners occasion in the rest of the country and would do here too, if only there weren't so many of us. It might also have to do with a greater knowledge on their part, acquired through practice and experience, of how we might best be persuaded to part with our money. Though I grant that's me being cynical.
On the other hand I can see how my perception was influenced by having come to Damascus after seeing so much of the rest of the country first. Most people don't do this. Most travellers come straight to Damascus, then travel on to either Aleppo or Palmyra, before seeing the more obscure areas. Some, of course, won't leave Damascus at all, though I'd say these would mainly be the westerners here on business. The other group of westerners I met in Damascus, beyond businessmen and travellers, were students, usually in their early twenties, here to study Arabic, often as part of a degree they were pursuing at home. If they took a course, it might be a month long, or last for many months. Or you could just turn up and plan to hang out in the place, learning Arabic while you're here. This was Emily's plan.
I was looking forward to seeing Emily again, who'd I'd left in Bergama in early August on her way to Izmir and the Greek Islands. Talking to her was not like talking to most people, no offence to most people intended, and I was looking forward to a bit of energy and fire in my life. We'd arranged to meet by the big Ummayad mosque at noon on the day after my arrival.
Before we met, however, I thought I'd check out the British Council in the morning because I was thinking I might like to work there. But there was nobody I could talk to about opportunities. So after reading the Observer for awhile and acknowledging, as expected, that the internal decor of the building was identical to the BC's in Sofia, Kathmandu, Cairo, Hong Kong and Bratislava, I took myself to the fancy Four Seasons. Here I enjoyed a five dollar coffee, a sofa, and the agreeable, amusing experience of being mistaken for somebody rich.