An Odyssey in Syria
THE ROAD FROM DAMASCUS: A Journey Through Syria
By Scott C. Davis Seattle, Cune Press, 2002
In an account of his travels to Syria in 1987, Scott C. Davis not only introduces us to contemporary Syria, which, at the time of his initial journey, had just been named a "terrorist state" by the U.S. government, but also to the Syria of tradition, the crossroads of Western culture. The book is a gold mine of history and colorful snapshots of people and places. As a subject, Syria would stagger even the most intrepid reporter. Since colonial times in the Arab world, parochial nationalisms have been consolidated at the expense of more universal ones; in Davis' narrative, this tension is palpable in the omnipresence of the secret police and the gut-wrenching effect their sudden appearance always has on him (and on a variety of Syrians, it seems). An American lugging a huge backpack, Davis must respond often to their arbitrary and sometimes unsettling demands. Though he renders these scenes as comedy, the episodes only reinforce the feeling that contemporary Syrians live on a knife-edge of history.
Davis' profound determination to meet all manner of Syrians takes him where angels fear to tread. But "The Road From Damascus: A Journey Through Syria" is more than travelogue: it is an odyssey. During the trip, all the author's hard-won American know how and self-confidence - he is a building contractor in Seattle - come apart at the seams. At the nadir of his journey, he spends a night in a dingy hotel in Dier ez-Zour, "a city so dull that no one would protest if it dropped off the earth tomorrow." His bitterness is profound, for he has almost reached his goal but has lost his vision. He spends the night vomiting into a basin filled with the remnants of his hopes and plans. Davis concludes: "I had come to Syria for many high-minded reasons, yet in there somewhere was the hope that travel in Syria would prove to me that I was still young. Only now was I forced to accept the opposite conclusion. I was no longer young. I was not immortal."
It seems a long way to go to discover a home truth. In fact, Davis' simplicity and the sincerity of his style are something of a fabrication - part of the fabric of the book. We recall this is the book of a builder, a man of action, but what we see is a sort of fool, dimly aware that he is an actor in his own play, a play he is writing day by day. Indeed, this is not so much an account of Scott Davis in Syria as an account of Scott Davis trying to write a book about himself in Syria: himself as intrepid traveler, cultural connoisseur, hopeful American - and as nothing like that at all - a self stripped naked and howling at the moon.
Like most good travel writers, Davis reveals as much about his own culture as about Syrian life. Take, for example, an evening spent in Dreykish, "famous for its pure, sweet water," where he met an Alawite woman named Fatima, "dark-haired, fair-skinned, buxom," with whom he has an awkward reunion in 2001. Fatima and her family - "I liked these gentle, lively people and allowed myself to think that I was one of them" - provide him a sort of epiphany, a revelation of what it is he has been seeking. The movement of the passage from sociology to the realm of cultural values and, finally, to personal style is compelling. "This evening was possible because, Syria, in 1987, was a place where people held jobs that ended each day and allowed them to come home from work and talk to one another. It was a quiet place where conversation, wit, and repartee were celebrated, where present company did its best to represent the world instead of referring all questions to specialists, where electronic entertainment - canned music or video - was not allowed to diminish living voices and gestures, where all attention turned to insight, humor, and offhand eloquence."
We find "insight, humor, and offhand eloquence" on every page of this book. Flashbacks and flash-forwards frequently break into the narrative, often in the words of Syrian friends who comment on the inadequacies of Davis' mind and art. Davis often plays the straight man, and these interludes are sources of wisdom and humor. Indeed, the prose style, generally plain and occasionally stiff (as if in parody of American ingenuousness), gains luminosity and flexibility from ironic self-representation. Text-book historical thumbnails yield to eyewitness reporting of charm and insight. The pace, at times as wavering as the traveler's sense of purpose, gradually picks up as the pattern of interwoven themes becomes clearer. What distinguishes the writing is the author's double awareness of his own simplicity and his capacity for transcending himself to skillfully represent his own spiritual education. If Scott Davis' trip is a kind of descent into the hell of a self-sufficient American self, his book is his Virgil, his true if limited guide.
The book not only records the journey, but it makes the true journey possible. Moments of insight are quietly devastating, as when he contemplates Shiites at a temple festival. Plastic-covered photographs of Khomeini hang from buttons on their shirt pockets. Davis compares these pictures to his Silva compass, his Lowe expedition pack, his Goretex cagoule: "I hoped, a little foolishly, that these pieces of matter would help me ascend a summit of soul and spirit." Ascend it he does - but during the process it seems more like a descent. Davis triumphs ironically as a writer of this curiously wrought and ultimately convincing voyage of the spirit down and out and eventually back to his own world where he will feel, thankfully, for ever after a little bit Syrian.
This article appeared in Vol. 7, no. 36 (Summer 2001).
Copyright © 2001 by Al Jadid