After that first visit (to Syria and Jordan), I was hooked on this part of the world. Curiosity developed into fascination, affection, and a desire to discover and learn more, much more. The austere beauty of those ancient countries captivated us, but it was the people who especially charmed me. Their warmth and welcoming spirit and the richness and complexity of their traditions intrigued me. The feeling of antiquity, of the millennia that had come and gone beneath my feet, was exciting and sobering. Civilizations, empires, emerged, grew rich and powerful, then faded and vanished, yet their influence endures to this day.
The streets and markets of Damascus and Aleppo, the back alleys of Cairo, the boulevards of Beirut, the golden hues of ancient Palmyra, the complexity of the medinas of Marrakesh and Fez, the glorious tiled mosques of Isfahan, the remains of medieval caravansaries crumbling along the Silk Road: all of this hypnotized me. Then, as I explored more and learned more, I came to appreciate more deeply the protective traditions passed down over thousands of years. Many people today value and carry on the old ways, whether it’s the Bedouins still herding their sheep across the dry landscape, the backstreet craftsmen hammering out silver and gold, the bakers producing loaves of flatbread in scorching brick ovens, or people opening up their homes and offering mint tea or strong coffee and tasty mezze as their ancestors did long ago.
We also heard about the difficulty young men are having finding jobs so they can marry and have families. This is not just a picturesque ancient land, but a land trying to cope with the realities of the modern world—a land looking for solutions that will give its people dignity and hope. These problems wear a variety of faces, but persist from Iran to Palestine, from Morocco to Turkey, from Egypt to Syria and Lebanon. The consequences also might seem superficially varied, but maybe aren’t so different. People everywhere grab at whatever offers them hope for the future.