A cold winter’s night in Damascus

Liyana Musfirah spent 3 years studying in Damascus, Syria before the civil war made it impossible for her to complete her degree there. But, the time she spent there has always been in her heart, and here she shows us a different side of Syria; a softer, gentler one. 
A trip home from the highest mosque in Syria. We had to climb more than 500 steps to reach the mosque!

A trip home from the highest mosque in Syria. We had to climb more than 500 steps to reach the mosque!

I hugged my parents with tears flowing from my eyes. I didn’t want to let them go. How could they leave me behind in a strange place? A whole new country that was so unfamiliar and so new. I wanted to go home. It was time for them to fly and I knew that I had to stand alone. My seniors drove me home and drowned me with comforting words that didn’t work at all. I cried myself to sleep hoping to feel better when I woke up the next day.

Syria is a friendly, warm and very comforting country. At first, I was struggling to float on its air as I missed Singapore so very much and I wanted to go home to my parents badly. However, as time flew by, my heart grew fonder for Syria in the most unexpected of ways.

Syrians are sweet, friendly, warm hearted and always smiling. Their faces alit, glowing as they stroll around the market floors and streets every morning. They greet us with kind, sincere blessings and prayers that we would normally give to close family members and relatives. They shower me with candies, chocolates and all those free wonderful goodies that melt my heart. They invite me to their closed homes for tea and supper and share with me ancient lore and bits of history of the country, its past and its people.

I didn’t feel like I was away from home at all. I was so comfortable and so ‘at home’ that I told my parents to invite all my other family members to come and join me. It was all because of the people, how warm, genuine and kind hearted they were. How they made me feel at peace. The hospitality that was offered to my friends and me. It was so tremendous that I didn’t want to go home.

Blankets of snow during a Syrian winter

Blankets of snow during a Syrian winter

It was one frigid mid December evening. I glanced down at my phone; it was 6 pm, and I regretted not having an extra layer on. Class ended late today and my housemates have left me as they had earlier classes. I rode an empty bus home. As I walked from the bus stop back to my apartment, I started to look for a shop or a cafe that sells warm cocoa and hot tea. However, to my dismay, there wasn’t any. I walked and walked, battling it out with the chilly weather and the strong wind. My lips were blue. I covered my face with the shawl around my neck and forced myself through the cold street. My phone rang as I took it out from my pocket, it was my roommate who asked for half a kilogram of tomatoes for her cooking today. I doubled back to the market and asked the grocer for 500g of fresh, plump and juicy tomatoes. I couldn’t help but notice an old lady standing beside me. She was carrying a bag full of fruits and leafy vegetables as she smiled warmly at me. She just couldn’t stop smiling and her eyes stared at the books I was holding in my gloved but frozen hands. With warmth rushing through my chilling veins, I smiled back. She asked me for my name and requested my company, to stop by her house for a cup of tea. I refused as all I wanted to do at that moment was to retreat to the warmth of my home.  However, she kept insisting that I join her and so I did, albeit a little reluctant. Her house was only four minutes away from the grocery store and I was very relieved as I entered her house.

The floors were carpeted and the heater was definitely doing its job by thawing me out. I sat on the couch and looked around as she showed me the pictures of her family and her grandchildren. She made us warm mint tea and welcomed me to some honeyed Syrian desserts and sweets. We talked for hours and hours until my phone rang again. It was my roommate who asked for the tomatoes. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to get out of the house. I loved the house. It was sweet, humble, welcoming and definitely warm. But I had no choice, so I excused myself grudgingly, wishing I could stay longer. As she was saying goodbye and thanking me for the company, she presented me with a huge basket, filled to the brim with my favourite Syrian goodies and sweets. I couldn’t thank her more. Before I left her house, she gave me a hug and told me that she was the wife of the author of the book that I was carrying! What a coincidence! My textbook was written and taught by a wonderful, talented teacher and I just had tea with his wife!

As I walked home, I couldn’t stop smiling as my mind wandered back to that chance encounter.  Such a beautiful moment, spent with a complete stranger. It was definitely a memory I never want to forget.

My school in Damascus

My school in Damascus

There are countless other momentous times and joy that Syria and Syrians have shared with me. I could go for hours and hours, sharing and telling the old time stories during my 3 years in Damascus, Syria. The people were not the only factor why I loved Syria so much. It was everything. The food, the air, the atmosphere, the old monuments and historical buildings, the cheap shopping, not to mention my school and my rented house. Everything made my stay even more meaningful and memorable. The food was remarkably tasty despite the limited spices that the Arabs used in their everyday meals. The sweets and the desserts could really make your sugar level high as there were all honeyed and coated with every type of sugar and sweetener you can think of. The air was fresh and crisp, and the weather could get very cold and very hot at the same time! The buildings are low rise and often dull in colour on the outside, but as soon as you enter, they turn into a whole different place. Those buildings were so huge and grand and colourful inside!

I miss Syria and I would go back there and stay for a few years more if I had the chance to. Sadly, the current situation in Syria is heartbreaking. Let’s just hope and pray for Syria to return to where it was before. I wonder what happened to my teacher’s wife. I hope that she is still having hot tea and sweet desserts in her warm, carpeted home now. I hope with all of my heart.

Liyana Musfirah on the left, with her friend Haziyah.

Liyana Musfirah on the left, with her friend Haziyah.