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Originally published Sunday, March 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Slices of paradise in complex, chilling Syria

I'm standing in the 1,400-year-old footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. Or at least I'm standing on the same deserted ridge where he once...

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you go

Damascus, Syria

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the United States to Syria, but plenty of connecting flights through Europe. Try booking through Air France, Alitalia, Austrian Airlines or Turkish Airlines.

Visa Requirements

You need an entry visa from the Syrian Embassy ($100) before you arrive in Syria. You cannot travel to Syria from Israel ("Occupied Palestine," in the parlance of the Syrian government), or if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. The Embassy of Syria in Washington, D.C., is at 2215 Wyoming Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20008. For questions about passports and visas, call 202-265-4585; for cultural questions, call 202-232-4357 or e-mail: info@syrembassy.net.

Is it dangerous?

Yes and no. The U.S. State Department has deemed Syria a "State Sponsor of Terrorism" and advises against nonessential travel there. It also reminds you that the Syrian government is known to search foreigners' hotel rooms and monitor their phone calls and e-mail conversations. That said, you're statistically safer walking around a marketplace in Damascus than you are driving on Interstate 5 at rush hour. To check for updates from the State Department, call 888-407-4747 or check the Department of State's country-specific information for Syria, the Worldwide Caution Travel Alert and the Middle East and North Africa Travel Alert, which are available on the Department's Web site at http://travel.state.gov.

Female travelers

Dress conservatively. When in doubt, think mummy-chic. There's no specific rule about when to wear a hijab (a head scarf), but you'll definitely want to throw one on when visiting a mosque, and in some of the more conservative rural areas. Be respectful, and you will be treated with respect.

Tour groups

If relying on a nine-year-old Lonely Planet Syria guidebook isn't your thing, look up Seattle travel agent Rita Zawaideh, who leads regular tours to the Middle East and North Africa and specializes in Syria. She'll arrange your flights, visas, hotels and transportation ahead of time for independent or group tours. For more info, www.caravan-serai.com or 206-545-1735.

More information

Syria's Tourism Bureau: www.syriatourism.org

Places to stay in Syria: www.chamhotels.com/syria.html

Lonely Planet's users' blog: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/letters/meast/syr_pc.htm

I'm standing in the 1,400-year-old footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad.

Or at least I'm standing on the same deserted ridge where he once stood overlooking the city of Damascus, which from this height seems to unfurl into the milky dusk like a city built with kids' blocks.

According to the legend, Muhammad crested this desert mountain range, beheld the oasis below and was so moved by its beauty that he refused go any farther, saying, "A man can only enter paradise once; I prefer the one above." He turned around and never came back.

I do not have the prophet's self-control.

For one week this winter, I explored Damascus, the capital of Syria and the oldest constantly inhabited city in the world. It is a collage of squat cement buildings crowned with clotheslines and rusted orange satellite dishes and minarets that glow with fluorescent green lights at night.

Damascus is the only place I can think of where a single courtyard, no bigger than a baseball diamond, is lined on one side with an ancient temple, offering sacrifice to the Roman god Jupiter, and on the other side with the Umayyad Mosque, where John the Baptist's head is said to be kept; where Jesus is said to return one day; and where, today, men in sock feet kneel on patterned red carpets, their eyes squeezed shut in fervent prayer, the haunting, tinny call to prayer echoing against the cool marble walls.

Meanwhile, across the street, Muslim women wearing the hijab, the traditional head scarf, or sometimes the full burqa, wander through a 2,000-year-old marketplace, the Souq al-Hamidiyya, lazily licking pistachio-dipped ice-cream cones and haggling for kids' Spider-Man T-shirts.

All about history

As weird as it sounds, you can actually feel the weight of all that history crammed into these crooked streets. The empires risen and fallen; the wars fought and forgotten; the crusades, the persecutions, the mass murders and love letters and prayers for young men who have long since passed on. Here, history occupies a dimension of its own.

Just outside Damascus, the Syrian landscape melts into melodrama. It's as if the light out there was lifted from a Renaissance painting and splashed onto the deep-green hills of the Anti-Lebanon range, across the gray stones of a Crusader castle and over the scrubby white desert to the north and east, where the dry, white land is the same color as the overcast sky. Gray and foreboding, its monochrome is punctured only by those great, dramatic shafts of sunlight that stream down from the clouds, making you half-expect the booming voice of God to roll down from the heavens at any moment and command your obedience. This is, after all, a land that is no stranger to theatrical religion.

It is also a land where hospitality rules. You can't walk a block in Damascus, or in Palmyra or Homs, for that matter, without a stranger (a fig merchant, a goat herder, a hair stylist) inviting you into his home, thrusting an infant into your arms and offering you a spread of baba ghanouj and hummus and black tea so sweet it would make even the most ardent disciple of Southern hospitality flush with competition. That's just the way it is here, and that goes for Syrians, Bedouins, Iraqi refugees and Palestinians alike. And if it strikes you as funny that you're sharing a lamb kebab with a man whose politics, religion and nationality land him firmly on the Axis of Evil, it'll strike him as even funnier.

"Your leader is crazy," a new friend named Muhammad tells me, laughing. And while he, and most other people, also spoke to me seriously about their concerns with American foreign policy, and the war in Iraq, I didn't meet anyone who didn't also append a kind word about American people. Individuals. Me and my family. And part of me — the same part that wants to believe that a s'more-fueled sing-a-long at Camp David is the ticket to world peace — wants to leave it at that. I want this to be a sweet story about how Syria is a kind, welcoming place, where, as a (blond) American woman, I always felt safe. (I did.) But that would be only half the truth.

Dangerous? Yes and no

The other part of the story is that Syria is a pretty scary place. It's a place where family courts (the lowest tier of the judicial hierarchy) are still ruled by Islamic law, under which women are treated as chattel. While the government officially does not condone things like honor killings, the punishment for, say, stoning your flirtatious wife to death in the cul-de-sac outside your uncle's house on a sunny afternoon is pretty light.

For another, Syria is the willing protectorate of a whole mess of fundamentalist militants who, regardless of your politics, are not the kind of people you want to run into in a dark alley. Imad Fayez Mugniyah, a terrorist whose résumé would make Ol' bin Laden jealous, was assassinated in a Damascene neighborhood a little over a month ago, the week after I left town.

And the fact that Hezbollah leaders, al-Qaida thugs and folks on the U.S. State Department's Top 10 Villains list are sipping coffee in the city center isn't exactly a secret. Propaganda posters of Hezbollah leaders' faces are plastered around town on telephone poles and store fronts under headlines that promise political salvation. A street vendor near where I stayed had a series of trading cards with Hezbollah leaders' faces on them — an entire baseball team of terrorists — taped up beside his till. But before you judge too harshly, remember, nothing here is ever cut and dry: That same street vendor also had taped up a photograph of a man cradling an infant, inscribed underneath with the words, in both Arabic and English, "We just want peace."

Syria is a complicated place. It's magical and sickening; impoverished and glitteringly wealthy; and completely, heartbreakingly tragic, all in one breath. All on one street. But however entangled and convoluted the political and social issues here are, to some degree I think the Prophet Muhammad had it right: Walking around a beautiful souq in Old Damascus on a Saturday afternoon while licking a pistachio-dipped ice-cream cone just might be a little glimpse of paradise.

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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