You know times are changing when The Times (UK) devotes four articles to Syria in the space of one weekend.
They’ve sent four reporters to deliver four travel articles we really haven’t seen before. (Yes, this is me being generous about Syria travel pieces – savour it, it doesn’t happen often). The first article is fantastic. The other three deserve to be ripped to shreads. So let me have my fun.
First Alice Fishburn and Joanna Sugden travel around the country, and report back on their favourite four places. They pick Krak de Chevaliers, the Dead Cities, Rasfa and Aleppo (they seem to like the north!). They also dismiss the notion that it’s hard to survive in Syria as a female traveller. “Syria: four sites you shouldn’t miss” is the result.
After touring the north, the same couple spend some time discovering Damascus. Discovering their copy of Lonely Planet more like. But they haven’t done a very good cut-and-paste job.
They do say of the Umayed Mosque: “One of the many resting places of John the Baptist’s head is said to be here in a side room off the main open square.” Yes, that little “side room” is the main prayer hall. Did you not bother to go in there? They visit a Hamem (you mean a Hammam?) and pop into Azem Palace and get a cab up to Jebl Qasioun. Back in Souq Al-Hamidiyeh they get a legendary ice cream from the Barada (BEKDASH???), discover cheap food in Qaimariyeh and find an authentic Damascene cafe called An-Naufara.
To add insult to injury, the photo is captioned “Beirut, Syria”. Ouch. I can hear the Phonecians screaming from here.
All fairly standard guide-book fare in this article then – I’m not impressed.
The family holiday
Finally Anne Spackman takes her family to Syria and paints the country as a living history book for her kids. She does her piece justice, without absurdly patronising cultural references, spelling errors, location mistakes or “conversion on the road to Damascus” cliches.
And I’m even prepared to overlook this: “Food in Syria is tasty and cheap but monotonous. By day five you’ve had enough of flatbread and hoummos.” Food in Syria is not “monotonous” – even I, as a culinary-imbecile, know that there is a little bit more to Syrian food than “flatbread and hoummos”. Give me strength.
And this too: “No one knew where England was”. WHATTTTTT?
She ends her article with a rant about the overwhelming number of Syrian women being covered in flapping black sheets trailing in their wake of their husbands. And that’s a shame, because it isn’t true.
But the point about these four articles is not what they say. The point is the Times has dedicated this much space in the paper in the belief that its readers might chose Syria – not Spain, Damascus – not Prague, as this year’s offbeat holiday destination.