Syria postcard

Maybe I had envisioned Damascus as in steady but essentially incomplete contemplation into the modern world. Instead a thoroughly contemporary cosmopolitan organized orchestral harmony even in the old city, timbres of gracious confidence at having left any underlying manic chaos behind. Churlish of me to feel disappointment at the absence of street pandemonium. Much more in the foreground should be the poise and elegance with which Damascus has embraced its history but has also moved forward to a more complete and mature settledness with this century. It is convenient to think here that a place with as much continuous practice with urban civilization as any in the world might be quite good at it by now.

Wonderful Syria. Not a place to visit for landscapes — the grueling yellow stony kilometers in between gain no purchase on my affection — but the people, the cities, the history, the archeological sites. Kindness and openness, culturally not trying to be something other than what it is, not looking elsewhere for a way, having so palpably already found an exquisite one. Taxi drivers wave without irony to billboards with their young president. Sure, Facebook and many corners of the Internet are blocked, but the NYT isn’t. I have firm convictions about equality and justice, but the presence of so many women in veil, makeup, tight jeans and stilettos reminds me that everything is always more complicated than editorial page politics imply.

* * *

A post office worker, a world capitals savant, is mercilessly quizzing me on the US State capitals, I’m doing passably well though he tisks at my, “wait! Um, Wilmington?” I’m woeful when we move to the rest of the world, he’s relentless like we’re on a timed game show, Bhutan? Sierra Leone? French Guyana? Costa Rica? “San Jose!” I blurt out triumphantly, earning me a pitying look of encouragement, Georgia, the Asian one? Maldives? There’s a lull, I acknowledge his prowess and decide to let him show off a bit by quizzing him back, he’s a veritable almanac, answering without hesitation. He seems bored in his complete knowledge. “British Columbia?” I randomly unhopefully probe. Pause. He frowns. “Colombia, no, British Columbia,” he’s biding time. I mask my surprise with friendly glee, “Yeah, you know, British Columbia. Canada.” His frown grows deeper, “Bah, Canada. No, no Canada. Pfft. Next one!” I howl with laughter, he has no idea why but can’t help joining in.

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