Damascus really is the new black. The hotels are filling up, flights are packed. But there is one massive downside: bad travel writing.
Journalists and travel writers (there is a big difference) are flocking to ‘discover’ Syria. And nearly every single one of them feels the need to use tired and worn cliches referring to the ‘road to Damascus’, or mentioning some ‘conversion’ they’ve had. Oh woo hoo. I bet you thought you were being really original with that one. Yawn.
Australia’s Sean Mooney has penned a piece entitled ‘Road to Damascus’. But despite the title, it is different. Very different. Look, he starts on Jebl Qasioun, not in the Old City:
“A tyre-squealing, seat-gripping ride in the back of a crumpled Iranian taxi has brought me to the original paradise. From a rocky outcrop on the top of Jebel Qassioun – a mountain so integral to history, it appears in the Book Of Genesis – I gaze down on one of the world’s oldest settlements. On the plain below, partially obscured by a film of smog that, with the setting sun, lends it an apocalyptic hue, sprawls the ancient city of Damascus. Some believe the Syrian capital was the original Garden of Eden and Cain slew Abel on these
slopes. Moses, Lot and even Christ himself are said to have traversed Qassioun. One legend has it that when the prophet Muhammad neared this barren peak and looked upon the vast orchards of Damascus, he quickly turned back towards Mecca, not wanting to experience a utopia other than heaven.”
He continues, wrapped in metaphor, and painting pictures ignored by the Hamidiyeh-hunters (although he does eventually get to that Souq). One of the most sensory places in the city has got to be Straight Street. And Mooney does it justice:
“One evening I stroll down the famous Straight Street, where Saint Paul is believed to have rested following his conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. This experience left him blind until his sight returned to him on this street. It is, however, the sense of smell that’s behind my epiphany, as I pass carts piled high with thyme, sumac, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, with notes of rosewater and orange blossom.With my appetite piqued, I head east towards the Jewish and Christian quarters and settle at a roof-top restaurant where fresh saj, or flat bread, is baked in an oven. I dip warm chunks into fresh hummus. The bread is also toasted and sprinkled on a zingy fattoush: cucumber, tomato, radish, lettuce, parsley and shallots seasoned with garlic, paprika, oil and lemon juice. I order the national dish of kibbeh – falafel-like pods of minced lamb with cracked wheat and onion – and eat my tabouleh from a cup of iceberg lettuce.”
Tantalising. He’s doing something different. Writing with authority, avoiding cliche, steering-clear of the tourist traps that every other ‘journalist’ feels the need to reveal to us. I could quote from this piece all day. But I have other points to make – so savour it for yourself.
Unfortunately, Mooney’s visit is a rarity. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I like to pull apart travel articles.
Lara Dunston is one of the latest professional travellers to visit Damascus. As co-author of Lonely Planet Syria (and 39 other countries), you’d think she knows what she is talking about. But she makes schoolgirl errors about internet access – claiming her blog had been blocked because she mentioned a country beginning with the letter “I”. And that it was only unblocked after the Minister of Information overheard her loud protestations in the hotel lobby.
She was told by a number of Syrian bloggers that, erm, all blogspot blogs are restricted – unless you use a proxy. That should’ve been that, but she stubbornly stuck to her guns, claiming she was too busy to do the research, but insisting her “advisors” told her she was right – without producing a single quote.
And it seems she has a history of getting on her high-horse, and then deleting comments on her blog when people contradict her. Have a look at this very public row.
Anyway, if you listen to Dunston, you’ll be dining in the Four Seasons Hotel, instead of the many fantastic restaurants dotted across the city. Venture out of your Abu Rumaneh hotel lobby – that’s my advice!
But her credibility is highly questionable. Would you take the advice of a writer who thinks it’s acceptable to receive discounts or freebies in return for potentially positive reviews? I wonder what she got from the Four Seasons!
Dunston’s cliche-littered writing, sprinkled with a heavy dose of clumsy mistakes and “stay in your hotel” advice is not unique.
The Times dedicated four articles to Syria over the course of one weekend this spring. But they claimed to have got some legendary Syrian ice cream from the Barada (you mean Bekdash?? – Barada is the river). In one of the other articles, its name changes again, this time to Bedach. Along with claiming Syrians didn’t know where England was, and all the woman are covered up in burkas, The Times makes a thorough hash of their visit.
Then there was this astonishing poorly researched rant by Rasha Elass. I critiqued it for Frontline, here.
You know what I’ve learned. The best travel articles aren’t written by people who fly into Damascus for 48 hours, and stay in the Four Seasons on their expense accounts. They never will be.
If you want to understand the real Damascus, turn to people who know the city intimately well. The writers who have a passion for this place. People like Qunfuz, who wrote what is still one of my favourite odes to Damascus: Cultural Capital. Orientalista, The Blog and the Shower, Ali Khan and Jillian C York may not be Syrian, but they made a habit of writing colourfully about Damascus. And just last week Batoul penned these poetic five paragraphs.
Dump the expert travellers, turn to the expert Damascenes.