His name, he told me, was Anwar. His name meant ‘light’ – the day of his birth saw his little Syrian village connected up to electricity for the first time and he was born that night beneath the glow of an electric lightbulb. He told me this as we flew over Germany en route to Istanbul. I was travelling on to Cairo. Anwar knew Cairo – he had studied medicine at the university there in the days of Nasser and Sadat, back before he had moved to England to practice as a doctor. Today he was travelling back to Damascus to see his family. When he heard that my journey overland from Cairo to Istanbul would take me through Damascus he all but insisted that I take his mobile phone number so that he could show me around his home town. It was only by saying that I was travelling with a group that I managed to dissuade him. Still, he gave me advice on what to do with my time in Damascus – check out the Takiyya near the National Museum, wander around the old Jewish quarter ("the Jews were the handymen, the artisans; their neighbourhood is very ornate"), queue up for ice cream with the presidents and dignitaries at Bakdash on Souq al-Hamidiyya, take a trip out to Bosra and see how villagers still lived among the Roman ruins.
"I am not a tour guide" the old man said. We had fallen into step together as we walked down the old Biblical ‘Street called Straight’ in Damascus’ old city. He may not have been a tour guide, but Maurice proceded to direct me to some of the local churches and hand out advice on where to get cheap eats in the Christian Quarter he called home. As we parted company he extended one final offer. Every evening at 7pm I would be able to find him worshipping at the old Chapel of Ananias; he would be pleased if I could join him.
Aleppo, the first day of Ramadan. Leaving my hotel room as the sun sank two of the staff called me over. They had set up a table with food and drink. They would be honoured if I would join them for dinner as they broke their fast.
I was to experience this time and time again during my stay in Syria: simple unforced hospitality. It happened too many times to be a coincidence. People were pleased to see tourists. In a night club the DJ ordered shots for our table and joined us to down them. Breaking a journey at a roadside reststop we entered to find it overflowing with about 200 adolescent members of the Syrian army on national service. Their reaction as they saw us enter was like that of over-excited puppies. A chorus of happy "Hello!"s and "You are welcome!"s filled the air.
There were negatives too, particularly for females. At that same rest-stop one girl’s thigh did get ‘accidentally’ groped. At Palmyra a restaurant owner plied a female friend with free drinks before inviting her back to see his ‘Bedouin tent’. Filling up for petrol, a group of lounging men paused from smoking their cigarettes for just long enough to start taking photographs of the girls climbing in and out of our van on their mobile phones. Most shocking of all one girl was goosed in the Shrine of Hussain at the Umayyad Mosque itself. All around was the wailing and crying of fevered religion and one guy thought it appropriate to pinch the backside of a visitor, despite her all-concealing grey robe.
These negatives can be experienced in any Arab country – stereotypes of western women are gained from watching our films and TV shows, and unfortunately the behaviour of some tourists confirms it in their eyes. But on the whole I found the people of Syria the friendliest and most open of probably anywhere I have travelled. Here we experienced Arab hospitality writ large – we were guests of the nation as a whole. Maybe they are aware of the reputation their government has abroad, but their welcome certainly showed that it is wrong to make judgements about a people and a nation just because of the actions of a regime that they did not vote for. Syria deserves to be known for the warmth and hospitality of the Syrian people, the friendliest in the world.