“Have you seen the TikTok reels?” I groaned at the question a friend posed a few days before I traveled to Damascus. I had caught glimpses of the social media content created by certain traveler-influencer types but had largely avoided them to keep good humor. But as my first visit to my mother’s country in a few years approached, and I contemplated how I would perceive it, I found myself tempted to have a look at what other Westerners saw. They all followed the exact same formula: the titles a variation of “Syria Beyond the Headlines” or “What You Don’t Know About Syria,” a montage of selfies and strangers’ smiles and text extolling the “good food,” “welcoming people,” “amazing sites” and “great partying” Syria has to offer.
I should have known better than to ask for nuance and depth in anything related to the Middle East, particularly bitesize content, but I thought that after Syria survived one of the world’s worst contemporary wars there would be a little more than listicles on my screen. The irony is that my younger self would have reveled in such content. When I was a child growing up in England, few people knew where Syria was, let alone the breadth of its rich and warm culture. All I had wanted people to understand back then — and which I had made great efforts to share with as many U.K. compatriots as I could — was how great, fabulous, wonderful Syria was.
My deep and enduring love for the country, the place that warmly welcomed my small nuclear family in diaspora every summer of my youth, still desperately wants that positive image to glow. But my respect for Syria and its people demands an honesty that is, unfortunately, far less palatable. Today’s Syria is one of extreme duality, despondency and cognitive dissonance. Throughout my two-week visit to Damascus, I oscillated between basking in its enduring beauty and charm and feeling bereft at the steady disintegration of society. [Continue reading…]