Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Another Cup of Tea

Waterwheels in Hama, Syria
“Is salaam 'alaykim!”, I greet two men sitting on their front porch with the commonly used Middle-eastern greeting of “peace be with you” as I walk by. Nodding and a waving back, they smile and respond, “Wa 'alaykum is salaam”, and all of a sudden, I find myself being invited in for another cup of tea. This would be my fourth glass, all with strangers who I had just met, and I have only been wandering around the city of Hama for just a little over 3 hours.

Some of my most memorable experiences while traveling through the middle-east have been meeting and interacting with the hospitable and friendly people of the region. Earlier in day, while walking along the Orontes River, photographing the ancient norias or water wheels that dot its banks, I am drawn to the voice of a little child screaming “heeello”. Turning around, I see a young boy, peering curiously at me from behind an iron fence. Returning the greeting, I wave back at him,which only prompts him to scream “heeello” a few more times. Behind him, his grandfather is lounging on a plastic chair in front of a little hut along the water's edge, and he is waving at me to come on in and sit with him. Not wanting to be rude, I oblige, and I am offered a cup of tea.

Although the grandfather spoke no English at all, we were still able to exchange greetings and a few basic niceties with each other. I found out that he is a carpenter, and the little hut that we were at is his workshop. His job is to repair and restore the ancient waterwheels in Hama. Soon his sons, who also work there joins us, and through a mix of basic English and Arabic, I learn further that his family has been performing this task of repairing and restoring the waterwheels for generations. And in the past, the wood used to come from the forests of Syria, but due to deforestation, the wood now mostly comes from China.

I sat chatting with this family for over an hour, trading stories of my family with theirs, and even going as far as discussing politics, religion and how tourism in Syria is affected by global economics – all the while using only a simple mix of English and Arabic. Being invited to a cup of tea and having the opportunity to interact in such an intimate setting with a Syrian family that could not be more different from my background was indeed fascinating. This is the reason why I enjoy traveling, to have the opportunity to expand my global perspective through encounters like these. As I got up to leave, the grandfather takes my hand, and tells me that if I ever returned to Hama, I must find him right here at this same spot again, and instead of paying for a hotel, I must stay with him and meet the rest of the family. Truly remarkable.

Waterwheels in Hama Syria

However, occasionally my attempt to speak Arabic goes horribly wrong, often leading to confusion or down right hilarity. When arriving into Damascus, Syria from Amman, Jordan, Laurence and I shared a service taxi with two middle aged Syrian women. They didn't speak any English, nor we Arabic, and conversing was next to impossible. Pulling out the Arabic phrase book that Laurence carried with him wherever he goes, I attempted to break the ice by asking them a few common civilities like “How are you?” in Arabic. After I had exhausted all the questions in the chapter titled “First Encounters”, I moved on to the chapter on “Family” and asked the two ladies casually, “Inti mitgawwiza? (Are you married?)” - knowing full well that I probably butchered the pronunciation.

After starting at us blankly for a few seconds, the ladies started pointing at both Laurence and I and proceed to giggle amongst themselves, speaking rapidly in Arabic. Turning to me, Laurence narrows his eyes in a state of realization and whispers quietly to me, “I think you just told them that we are married...to each other!”


  1. I think its time you read the book "Three cups of Tea" about Greg Mortenson... its excellent.