Ahlan Wa Sahlan
A Syrian Journey
Reviewer: Ayman Abdel Nour
Ahlan Wa Sahlan …A Syrian journey is a book co-authored by the diplomat Dnayneshwar Mulay and his wife,the economic expert Sadhna Shanker: their main objective was not to come up with a book for promoting Syria, attracting FDI's into the country, or a book to be used as a tourist guide.
However, the authors' job was not to bring out such kind of books. Moreover, they were not basically required to bring out such books.
But the feelings and sentiments implied in the book, the tales and stories contained therein on Syria, the humanitarian attitudes it mentions on the Syrians and the pictures it displays on the archaeological sites, throw into the heart of the reader a message that is much more important than all objectives that I previously mentioned .
The book, like any other book, reflects the experience, maturity, wisdom and style of its authors.
A senior career diplomat, who has published several books of prose and poetry in several languages, and also an experienced photographer, who has held several solo exhibitions of his photographs; and also his wife, an economic expert and a senior officer of the Indian Ministry of Finance, both, Mr. and Mrs. Mulay, make a harmonious couple with multidimensional experience in several domains.
Their experience is coated with a subtle human sense, nobility of character, tolerance, good manners, and renunciation of the worldly pleasures.
Thus, what else could we expect from such a couple, other than a creation that is soaring high in the realm of art and literature.
The book, which falls in six chapters, depicts the practice and experience of Mr. and Mrs. Mulay in traveling and visiti ng the tourist, archaeological, cultural and economic sites and their interaction with several community of the Syrian society all over Syria.
Their expert-eyes have captured images and incidents that we view as ordinary or natural. But they are not, in the perspective of such a couple, who have come from another country.
The book starts with describing the mixed feelings of apprehension and excitement when Syria was identified as Mr. Mulay's next destination. They had barely known about Syria when they landed there.
'Syria? Is it Sierra Leone or Siberia? Some have warned that it might be the next target after Iraq. In their news-hungry BBC, CNN dominated lives, Syria may not make news. And when it does, it is mostly in the context of US sanctions and Arab-Israeli conflict.
When they had typed 'Syria' in the search columns, 'a desert country', stretches of sand' popped up on the net invariably.
When they arrived in Damascus, they were still under the impression that they were coming to 'the Great Syrian Desert'.
The authors conclude by saying that the years they have spent and lived in Syria, and contrary to all stereotyped images, have unveiled an enchanting mosaic for a magical landscape, ancient civilization, stupendous ruins, soothing forests, imposing citadels, mystical churches, biblical roads and warm hospitable and friendly people.
Ultimately, they come to the conclusion that Syria is a well-kept secret treasure in the chaotic abyss of our contemporary commercial world. It allows you to slow down from the pace of New York and London and grows upon you silently the way civilizations have grown upon each other from at least the last 5000 years here in Syria.
Syria is unbelievably safe and a tranquil peaceful place to live in, with the snow, rains, heat, desert, magnificent rivers and seashores, which offers a mind-boggling diversity.
The authors request anyone who is willing to see Syria and give his judgment of it, to cross the barriers of his own prejudice and be prepared to savor in Syria the way Ibn Jubair, the 12th century Andalusian traveler, savored Damascus: "If paradise be on earth, it is, without a doubt, Damascus."
The first chapter sheds the light on simple-assistance incidents the two authors have received from ordinary people in the street, which generates in them a deep impression on the nobility and genuineness of these people. They mention that the 'smile' and 'Ahlan wa Sahlan' mark spirit of the Syrian people, their history and their daily life.
The second chapter (Land and Its History) demonstrates the diversity and tradition of Syria, starting with the coastal line through the eastern desert. They also come to the mention of all civilizations and peoples that had dwelled this part of the world, its history and major incidents.
The third chapter talks about the Syrian cities and the competition between Damascus and Aleppo, be it history-wise or economy-wise. The authors talk of the capital, its smooth roads and close-to-earth buildings (fewer tall buildings), and how it, from Qasyoon, lights up like a crown in the evenings. All the mosque spires sparkle in green. The buildings and illuminated signboards impart special flavor on Damascus, which appears like a kaleidoscope, anyway you turn it you have a different view or vision to offer.
Talking of Aleppo, they describe it as 'a city that carries on- it stands there as a proof and promise that life is all about regeneration'.
Talking about Quneitra, he describes how marriages get solemnized in this remote part of the world, in the so-called 'Shouting Valley' on both sides of the Syrian borderline, which is occupied by Israel. He says that the family whose child has gone over, look on return as if they had attended a funeral, rather than a wedding.
Then they shift to Homs, which he calls, 'the city of smiles', which gives rise to a host of Syrian jokes that bring a smile to many faces. Moving to Der ez-Zor, he points out how the city was also home to many of the Ar menians fleeing the genocide of 1915 and how they were welcomed with open arms.
In the fourth chapter, the authors talk about society and culture and shed the light on the ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity, which marks unity of the Syrian society, which is known for its tolerance, respect of difference and pride in their own cultural heritage, which substantiates the view that Syria is 'the cradle of civilization.' In their description of the Syrian cuisine, they indicate that what we know as 'Kebab Hindi' is known as 'Kebab Shami' in India.
The last chapter touches upon the Indo-Syrian relations and reviews history of the Silk Road through Mahatma Gandhi, who had advocated of rights of the Palestinian people.
It also talks about the close relation between Indira Gandhi and late President Hafez al-Assad and that there are about 200 students from India studying theology in Sayeeda Zenab, a Shiite Islamic shrine devoted to the great granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad in Damascus. It also mentions that 3.5 million of followers of the Syrian Christian church live peacefully in India.
I conclude by saying that the book, in its diversity, constitutes a major contribution to the Syrian library and a book that is worthy to be read. Also, it might be worthily recommended to use parts of the book in the teaching syllabuses of the intermediate schools in Syria.