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The changing face of Syria: Henry Wismayer

When war has coloured the meaning of a place and its people, how do you reconcile recent events with the country of before?

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The first thing to say about Charlie was that he had one leg, but what he lacked in limbs he made up for in charisma.

He was stocky, hair slicked back like a 1920s mobster. Greying stubble covered his boxer’s chin. A crutch, the sort of wooden A-frame number you might associate with an 18th-century pirate, rested under his right shoulder to compensate for the missing right leg. Half Popeye, half Long John Silver — you could tell, somehow, that he was mariner.

But the most arresting thing about Charlie — the trait that stopped me in my tracks — was the voice. “Hey Charlie, how are ya?” The words came out loud and ebullient and in a thick American drawl.

“You’re American?” I asked, uncertainly.

“Nah, man. I’m from the Le-ba-non.” He pronounced his country with elongated vowels, like a Vietnam veteran in an Oliver Stone film.

Charlie was one of those half-mad characters that seem irresistibly drawn to places of transit. His stage was the southern bus terminal in Damascus, and, on this sultry Syrian afternoon, sitting on a bench in the terminal’s echoing ticket hall, it quickly became clear that I was his chosen audience.

“You want some tea?” he asked, as we settled down to chat. “Lemme get you some tea.”

I went and got us some tea.

It was late 2010.

Often, when you’re overseas, you don’t appreciate the significance of an encounter at the time, but rather in hindsight, when future events have coloured its meaning. This is seldom felt more keenly than when a place where you found happiness descends into misery.

Standing in Damascus, shooting the breeze with Charlie, few could have predicted the trauma to come. Within six months, the optimism of 2011’s Arab Spring would give way to malcontent, then rebellion, then full-blown civil war.

For those like me who’d visited Syria in those calmer days, it’s hard to reconcile recent events with the country of before. Suddenly, memories that once seemed timeless become valedictory, and you’re left to wonder at life’s volatility and to face some painful truths: That social equilibrium is fragile. That for all the actors in a conflict there are millions of ordinary people reeling in the slipstream. That it is the visitor’s great fortune to be able to leave.

But ask any one of them and they’ll say the same thing: before the guns opened up in Hama — before the chemical attacks and the refugees, the ruined cities and broken lives — there were people like Charlie, welcoming outsiders with outstretched arms.

Over sickly-sweet tea, his story came out in sporadic non sequiturs. He was originally from Lebanon, and it was there that he’d obtained the nickname, together with the aptitude for mimicking a New York accent, while working with the US Navy as part of a peacekeeping force deployed in Beirut after the Lebanese civil war. It was there, too, that he’d forfeited the leg, though whether through accident or conflict he didn’t say.

Now, so far as I could tell, he just hung around the buses, striking up random conversation with the handful of travellers passing through.

You knew the shtick was well-worn. His side of our half-hour chinwag was as much performance as conversation, punctuated as it was by that peddler’s patter the Arabs excel in — a comedy salesmanship honed in the bazaar.

He had the most expansive handshake I’d ever shared, a great wheeling haymaker, dispatched each time with a devilish grin.

Yet there was also a sincerity about Charlie — a warmth and curiosity about my very different life. Where was I from? Where had I been? What did I think of Syria? It’s hackneyed to the point of banality for a tourist to describe the people of a host country as friendly, but Syria took the prize — this generosity of spirit had become the hallmark of my journey.

Syria then was a place where markets teemed, where coffee shops were always full and children played in mosque courtyards before dusk prayers. I’d loved it all. It was the Islamic world you cannot apprehend from afar, when the drip-feed of disaster and atrocity can render the Middle East one-dimensional — a basket-case land of violence and sectarianism.

Now, many of the places I visited are rubble and dust — Aleppo’s labyrinthine souq, where I’d haggled over shawls and ersatz perfume, has been destroyed; Palmyra, where I’d spent two days marvelling at 2,000-year-old temples that have since been razed, is in the hands of ISIS iconoclasts.

Many of the people I met — those numberless strangers who’d walked up to me smiling, hand on heart, to say ‘Welcome to Syria’ — are victims of war, buried by the bombs or part of the Diaspora, fleeing west.

Who knows what’s become of Charlie?

This man, this smirking street comedian, was my last interaction with a country on the cusp of Armageddon.

“Let’s putcha bags in here,” he said. As the evening bus to the Jordanian capital Amman had pulled into its stand, he’d insisted on lugging my rucksack across the concourse, in spite of his disability.

Then a final wheeling handshake. Slap! “See y’around Charlie.” He turned away without asking for a single Syrian pound.

As the bus rattled out of the terminal, the sky in the west was tinged with red. But as Charlie stood on his one leg and waved me off, neither of us had an inkling of the events it heralded — the horror that was about to engulf him and the land he called home.