In March 2020, I heard an interview with former Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill about her book on Syria, We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know. It inspired me to start a travel piece on my experience in Syria in 1995. But I got sidetracked by life and other writing and didn’t finish it until January 2021.
In the meantime, I wrote an eponymous blog post about McNeill’s book, Syria: We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know (March 2020). I quoted extracts from McNeill’s book and shared her despair at the world’s muted response to the atrocities committed in Syria.
My wife and I spent ten days in Syria in 1995 on a backpacking trip. We visited places that regularly feature on the news about the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Palmyra and Damascus. And in Damascus, I met a tailor with whom I enjoyed cold Cokes over conversations about his life and hopes for the future.
My Travel Journal
I recorded my Syrian travels and conversations with the tailor in a journal. As I wrote in Thanks for the memories, Travel Journal (September 2018), I have a cardboard box full of daily diaries and travel journals dating from when I set off backpacking in 1987. And over the years, these have come in handy for my writing.
One example was a piece I wrote on Seven Nights in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Tall And True, June 2019). In transcribing journal entries from my 1993 “flight of fancy” trip to Russia, I wondered why I hadn’t visited Lenin’s Tomb. My hotel room overlooked Red Square, and I recalled taking photos of the outside but not entering the tomb.
And then I turned a page in my journal and read this extract from the morning of 14 July 1993:
The besuited Lenin looks smaller than his statues, less powerful and imposing. In truth, I could have been looking at a Madame Tussauds wax dummy rather than the embalmed body of one of the world’s most powerful political figures. Death, the great leveller.
Aha, I had visited Lenin in his tomb!
I planned to use my 1995 journal for the Syria travel piece, like my Russia trip. And in the months following my March blog post, I regularly returned to it, transcribing journal entries, pulling out old photos, and Googling background on Syria. But as I’ve mentioned, life and other writing kept getting in the way.
COVID-19 and my son’s final year of high school were the most significant distractions in the life column. Thankfully, Australia’s isolation and state lockdowns limited widespread COVID-19 outbreaks. I’ve had one negative COVID-19 test, and our family has otherwise stayed safe and well.
My son was lucky to have only a short period of home-schooling in 2020. To his credit, he was diligent with his homework and exam preparation. Apart from occasional *prodding*, my parental role was to ensure he had plenty to eat and drink and took a healthy break now and again. And with shared sighs of relief, his exams came and went with minimal stress.
With exams over, I should have had plenty of time to finish my Syria travel piece. But again, I got distracted by other writing projects. I wrote about one of these distractions in COVID-19 and Writing (August 2020), which I posted on a COVID-19 International Story Project.
The Australian Writers’ Centre runs a monthly short story writing competition, Furious Fiction. Held on the first weekend of the month, writers have 55 hours to write a 500-word story based on the Writers’ Centre’s brief. And by good fortune, my first attempt at Furious Fiction fell on our first full weekend of COVID-19 lockdown.
From April 2020 onwards, I have dedicated the first weekend of every month to Furious Fiction. As yet, I haven’t basked in the winner’s spotlight. However, I’ve enjoyed the monthly challenge of writing a short story to a 55-hour deadline. And have shared these with other writers’ stories on the Tall And True website.
I was back working on my Syria travel piece when the Writers’ Centre’s brief for Furious Fiction November arrived. Along with words like “police” and “sapphire”, the story had to take place at a hotel and include a photograph. One of my Syria photos shows me sitting in the courtyard of an “olde worlde” hotel in Damascus. I used the photo and a journal entry about a “strange encounter” I’d had at the hotel to write a mystery short story, The Al-Rabie Hotel (Tall And True).
With a growing library of Furious Fiction short stories, in September 2020, I decided to narrate them as an audio fiction podcast, Tall And True Short Reads. And Episode 12 of the podcast was The Al-Rabie Hotel (Acast podcast link).
Work in Progress
Come the new year, and the travel piece started in March 2020 was still unfinished. I’d published a blog post, short story and podcast episode based on my Syria experience. And I’d done lots of other writing and podcasting and played a part in my son’s final year of high school. Oh, and sheltered and stayed safe from COVID-19.
But my 1995 journal and photos and Lonely Planet guidebook and Michelin map of Syria sat gathering dust on my desk. And my two thirds-written work-in-progress sat on my computer!
Finally, on 21 January 2021, I published the piece. It’s the tale of my ten days travelling in Syria, the places my wife and I visited, and the people we met. And I titled it after the message the tailor in Damascus had asked me to tell the world a quarter of a century ago, Syrians Love Peace (Tall And True).
As I observed in the closing paragraphs, I think of Syria and its people whenever I see news of the Syrian civil war and refugees. And of the Al-Rabie Hotel in Damascus. But most of all, of my conversations in the Suruja Street tailor shop.
Life and other writing got in the way of finishing the Syria travel piece. But I’m glad I stuck at it and shared the hopes and message of the tailor I met in Damascus.
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. Here’s another link to the travel piece on Tall And True, Syrians Love Peace (January 2021) — please read it and share the tailor’s message!
Note: This post also appears on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.