Scott C. Davis,
The Road from Damascus:
A Journey Through Syria

(Cune, 2002)

For travel writers with an interest in the Near East, Syria has always held a special attraction. Located on the crossroads between the Mediterranean and Asia, the country's culture is a composite of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, Greek Hellenism combined with Roman and early Christian influences, which in turn have been overlaid with a Muslim culture shaped by both Arabs and Turks. In the minds of most present-day Americans, however, Syria is associated with political extremism and international terrorism.

That is why Scott Davis' The Road from Damascus is a welcome addition to a growing body of books on Syria. It took fourteen years to write and is based on two visits in 1987 and 2001.

In late 1987, while a number of American hostages are languishing in captivity in neighbouring Lebanon and Libya is still reeling from U.S. bomb attacks, Seattle-based contractor cum writer Scott Davis decides to visit this powder keg. Within a day or two of arriving he is confronted with drunk Libyan tourists and has had an encounter with members of the Hezbollah. Having survived this "baptism of fire" he can put his most acute worries to rest and focus on the purpose of his visit.

In a world that has been thoroughly surveyed from a geographical point of view, the author explains, the remaining undiscovered realm is cultural. The wave of globalization presently engulfing the world is on a collision course with a whole array of indigenous cultures. To witness this confrontation, Davis resolved to travel to a country in the third world, "a web of human striving and despair that said more about our future than our past." But the writer's journey is also internal. The route he has charted through Syria is not only a map of a place but of a consciousness as well. Thus travel becomes a paradigm for linking and structuring ideas, which -- upon completion -- will constitute a totality, a whole.

In his travelogue, Davis shifts back and forth between the Syrian police-state of Hafiz al-Asad and the rich cultural heritage underneath this little-understood Arab country. He cleverly employs real-life Syrians as personages that allow him to describe the complex reality of Syria. Patiently peeling off the skin, he exposes the country's multi-layered culture.

Take for example Saad Shalabi, a U.S.-educated engineer specializing in soil investigations (how down-to-earth can you get?) who seems at first glance the Westernized technocrat incarnate. But in Syria, appearances are deceiving, for the author learns that Saad's father, grandfather and innumerable ancestors before them were Sufi-masters, leaders of one of Damascus' orders of Islamic mystics, which were destroyed by the military dictatorships that have ruled Syria since the 1940s.

As the bibliography shows, Davis has done his research and he interweaves his travel account with a wealth of information on Syria's history. Visiting a number ancient Christian monasteries, he contrasts the imperial Eastern Orthodox Church with the more humble (and purer?) Syriac Church. A trip through the mountainous coastal region serves as background for a discourse on Syria's most prominent Muslim minorities.

Such interjections not only underscore the ethnic pluralism of Syrian society, but also illustrate that the Islamic world is not some threatening monolithic block, intent on a confrontation with the West.

Davis is clearly fascinated by the most intellectual and sophisticated offspring of Shi'ite Islam: the Ismailis. It is therefore a pity that he breaks off his investigations prematurely. His description of Ismailism could have benefited a great deal if he had drawn on the works of Farhad Daftary, which were published in the years intervening his first and second trip.

Likewise, if he had dug a bit deeper into the Islamic variety of Cabbala, or the mystical learning of numbers, he would have discovered that the numeric value given to the word "God" was no math joke on the part of "The Wise Man of Masyaf."

After exploring Syria's Mediterranean heritage, Davis shifts his attention East in preparation for the main feat he has set for himself: reaching the Roman Bridge on Syria's eastern border. Taking the ancient trading town of Aleppo as his base, the writer explains that the city has formed the gateway to Asia since times immemorial. Throughout its history Aleppo was also a center for culture and the arts. Unfortunately the author does not say much about this. Although he does quote the blind medieval bard Abu Alaa al-Mari somewhere else in his book, Davis fails to make the connection between this giant of Arabic poetry and the Hamdanid court of Aleppo.

But Davis does give us a glimpse into the remains of contemporary art scene that was once thriving in Aleppo. Unfortunately, most artists and intellectuals have now gone abroad due to Syria's stifling political climate. Blatant copying of Western art styles is condoned, but attempts to transpose new artistic and intellectual notions to the native cultural heritage are cut short by conservative elements, led by the notoriously reactionary Islamic scholars or "Ulama."

As a former caravan terminus Aleppo is also frontier country, representing the age-old tension between "The Desert and the Sown" as Gertrude Bell called it. Leaving the safety and comfort from the city behind, Davis finally sets out for the wastelands of Eastern Syria, home to nomadic Bedouins and the Kurds, a fiercely independent people of Indo-European stock.

Wedged between Turkey and Iraq, these regions have been politically unstable for decades, if not centuries, and the author counts himself lucky that he succeeded in avoiding any further encounters with Syria's feared secret police.

At the end of his 1987 journey the writer has what can be called a mystic experience. As a former mountaineer he had conceived the arrival at the Roman Bridge as reaching a summit. Now Davis realizes that it truly is a bridge: a means to cross over to the other side and view the world through the eyes of "the other." It is then that the meaning of one of his earliest travel companions' parting words hit him: his coming to Syria was no accident, but intended to heal him from his ignorance.

[ by Carool Kersten ]
Rambles: 23 March 2002

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