The Way of Kindness: Bedouin Hospitality in Damascus

Syria, Damascus, Umayyad Mosque
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The first thing I noticed about Abdullah was that he was dying. A large-framed, bony old Bedouin, he sat slumped in an armchair in the lounge of my hotel in Damascus, Syria. He always sat in the same chair. Sometimes he didn't leave it all day. His djellaba was worn but clean, and he wore a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh on his head despite the fact that I never once saw him go out into the sun.

Abdullah's tribe had sent him from their desert home to the big city for medical treatment. I never found out what, exactly, was wrong with him, and perhaps his doctors didn't know, either. He would sit completely still, sometimes sleeping but usually just sitting, and suddenly he would shake with chills even though the room was warm. At times he would look better. His back would straighten, his face would get some color, and he'd look around the room with keen brown eyes glittering from a face creased with deep lines. Then those lines would deepen with pain, his face would turn gray, and he'd sink back into his chair.

Abdullah couldn't talk, and to communicate he had become eloquent with his hands and facial expressions. When I greeted him in the mornings with my few words of Arabic, his face would light up and he'd take my hand in both of his and beam a brilliant smile at me. He'd nod and his lips would form words I couldn't hear.

At times he'd ask where I'd gone by passing an outstretched hand to encompass the horizon his tired eyes could no longer see clearly, and I'd stumble through what little I could speak of his language, trying to tell him about my day. He'd always listen with rapt attention, nodding and smiling although I'm sure he didn't understand half of what I was trying to convey.

Maybe it was my enthusiasm that made him perk up during these one-sided conversations. It was 1993, and I was a budding archaeologist fresh out of college. Damascus was a fascinating city where Roman arches stood over bustling souks, traditional storytellers regaled café crowds with tales from A Thousand and One Nights, and the cool interiors of blue-tiled mosques offered respite from the Middle Eastern sun. It was the first Arab country I'd visited, and I was enchanted.

Our hotel was a ramshackle place set above a bakery. Every morning I'd wake up to the sound of the muezzin calling for morning prayer, and the smell of freshly baked bread. I'd go downstairs and buy a piping hot loaf, juggling it as I went back upstairs to fetch some fruit and a bit of jam from my bedroom, and sit in the hotel's common room to eat my breakfast.

The hotel was one of the few listed in the Lonely Planet guide, which at that time was the only English-language guidebook to Syria, so it was filled with young Western backpackers. I never saw anyone from Abdullah's tribe visit him, and I don't recall who took him on his many trips to the hospital. Abdullah was alone with foreigners who didn't speak his language and had probably never heard of his lineage, his tribe, or even the place where he was from.

He took this situation as a Bedouin would. Several times a day he'd point to the staircase just outside the lounge entrance, jabbing one gnarled finger down toward the ground floor. That was the sign for us to shout down to the front desk to bring up some tea. If he wanted biscuits, he'd hold one wavering hand up to his lips and make nibbling motions.

The tea would come promptly-everyone who worked at the hotel treated Abdullah with deference-and there'd be a bustle around Abdullah's chair as the table was pushed within reach, the tea poured, and the biscuits set out in a neat pattern on a plate.

There'd always be enough teacups and biscuits for everyone in the lounge, and if in the middle of these proceedings more foreign backpackers returned from seeing the sights, Abdullah would jab his finger downward and we'd call out for more tea. Then he'd listen as each person tried to tell him of their day sightseeing. Some people brought him postcards to show where they'd been.

Those teas never appeared on our bills, of course. Abdullah was a Bedouin, we were guests in his country, and that was that.

While Abdullah always smiled to hear me speak Arabic, his favorite foreigner was Simon, an Englishman who had recently graduated and had set out to backpack across Asia. Simon had long, curly blonde hair in a style that showed that no one had told him the Eighties were over. Abdullah was captivated by his hair. Sometimes he'd hold a lock between his thumb and forefinger and look at it quizzically, then he'd jab a finger into Simon's ribs and grin when Simon jumped. The consensus was that Abdullah thought Simon was a girl.

Everyone liked to sit and talk with Abdullah; even Simon endured the tickling and hair fondling out of respect for the old man. Our respect deepened when we noticed Abdullah hardly touched the tea or biscuits. They were for us, not him. We'd urge him to eat to keep up his strength, and he'd oblige us with a tiny sip or nibble. Then he'd sink back into his chair and gesture for us to pour ourselves more tea. He looked deeply grieved that he lacked the strength to do it himself.

The day I left, I showed Abdullah a map of where I was going-north to Turkey and then east to Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. It was the same route Simon was taking, and we would meet up several times over the next year. Of course I knew I would never see Abdullah again. He held the map in trembling hands and studied it politely, but with little understanding. The Bedouin don't need maps.

After a final tea, we bade farewell. My journal doesn't record what I felt when I said goodbye, but I can imagine that I was too young and too excited to realize he would be one of the people from that year who would stick with me.

Now, two decades later, when I see footage of the burning buildings and blood-soaked streets, I try to look past that, back through time, back to when I could walk alone across Damascus at night and fear no one, back before the destruction of Syria's ancient heritage, back to when a foreigner could while away long hours in conversation in bustling cafes or shady mosque courtyards or cramped little lounges in cheap hotels.

The seeds of destruction were already there. Even a clueless kid like me could see them. There was a deep hatred of the Assad family and a yearning for something better. Syrians knew enough about the developed world to know what they were missing, and they blamed the ruling dynasty for keeping it from him.

Still, for a long time it looked like the war would never come. Three years ago I was even planning to take my wife there. The Syrian Tourism Board had a big advertising campaign in Spain, where we live, and she got excited by all of my stories. A few months later everything went to hell.

I'm glad Abdullah didn't live to see it.

An archaeologist and writer who caught the travel bug early on and still hasn't shaken it, Sean McLachlan is the author of numerous books on travel and history. He's also written the historical novel "A Fine Likeness," set in Civil War Missouri.
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