Christmas in Syria

Louis CasaBianca offers a poignant Christmas tale of two men, a boy and a caged falcon in Damascus, Syria.

Published December 23, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

When I realized that I would be traveling alone over Christmas, I resolved to ignore the holiday and act as if Christmas simply didn't exist that year. When Dec. 20 found me in Bethlehem, I realized that this might be difficult. Faced with the prospect of being alone and anonymous during Bethlehem's Christmas frenzy, I then resolved to hide from the holiday in a place where I was sure Christmas would be ignored: Damascus, Syria.

After all, no less a travel authority than Mark Twain had written, in "The Innocents Abroad": "In Damascus they so hate the very sight of a foreign Christian that they want no intercourse whatever with him ... It is the most fanatical Muhammadan purgatory out of Arabia. Where you see one green turban of a hadji elsewhere (the honored sign that my lord has made a pilgrimage to Mecca), I think you will see a dozen in Damascus."

From Israel I caught a bus to Amman, Jordan, where I caught another bus to Damascus. At the border station, I stood in line with a sour-looking group of North Koreans. Each of them had a Kim-Il Sung button on the lapel of his wrinkled black suit, and as the border station was decorated with no less than 30 portraits of Hafez al-Assad, I felt that my quest to escape any reminder of Christmas would soon be an unqualified success. Peace and joy were certainly the last things I felt as the two dictators grinned at each other across the dusty room, and my visa and passport were checked and re-checked.

After a few days in Damascus, I realized that the Syrian people, Mark Twain notwithstanding, had other ideas about my quest. Almost to a person they were remarkably friendly, curious and generous, and my greatest danger among them was death from overfeeding due to their offers of lamb and falafel. The population of Syria is also about 10 percent Christian, enough to make Christmas a national holiday. And in one of those bizarre cultural traits that are impossible to explain, seemingly every car in Syria was equipped with an electronic noisemaker that beeped when the car was in reverse. Soon after my arrival in Damascus, I was staring in shock as a car pulled out to the electronic strains of "What Child is This?" "Jingle Bells" was another favorite on the Syrian car-beeper hit parade that year, as was "Frosty the Snowman." Surrounded by friendly people, and pursued by carol-playing cars, I gave up my attempt to ignore Christmas and decided to make the best holiday I could under the circumstances.

Christmas morning in Damascus was cold and clear, as most of the traffic
was off the roads. I wandered through the city to the national museum, and
treated the cats that lived on the grounds to as much spit-roasted chicken as
they could eat. After the cats had gorged themselves like lions at the kill,
I left them sleeping in the sun and walked through the city to the marketplace. After passing the metal workers, the fruit merchants and the meat stalls, I found myself among the pet vendors. Near the shops with chickens
and turkeys (which I suspected would have short careers as "pets"), I saw a
shop selling songbirds and, in a tiny wooden cage on the curb near the
gutter, a young falcon.

As I knelt by the cage, the falcon glared at me
through the bars, totally unafraid. All self pity I felt at my own
circumstances was replaced by outrage, and a feeling that I was looking at
something fundamentally wrong. Any bird, but especially a bird of prey,
lives its life with a freedom that humans can never experience, with the sky
as a playground and gravity a mere suggestion to be ignored on a whim.
Any animal in a tiny cage is heart-breaking, but that falcon, in that cage,
was as pitiful a sight as I ever hope to see. All of these tangled thoughts
came and went in a flash, and I immediately resolved to buy the falcon and
free it on the spot.

The owner of the bird shop was a polite man in his mid-20s, who
noticed me staring at the falcon, shook my hand gently and inquired as to my
interest. I confirmed his suspicions and requested a price. He held up a
small calculator that read "500." I had feared a price that high, and began
to despair of freeing the bird, which was becoming agitated by our
examination. I began thinking of the more exotic pieces of backpacking gear
I had with me, and if I could trade any of them away. Seeing my hesitation,
the owner touched the cage and typed out "100," then pointed at the bird
and typed out "400." It suddenly dawned on me that the falcon's price was
not $400, but 400 Syrian pounds. At 50 Syrian
pounds to the dollar, it was going to be a great Christmas, alone or not.

With a slightly giddy laugh I nodded acceptance, handed the man 400
pounds and pantomimed holding a bird and setting it free. He didn't
understand, and thinking that I simply did not want the cage, took out a
paper bag, into which he intended to stuff the falcon. I stopped him rather
abruptly, pointed to the bird and again made the motions of setting a bird
free. The owner's 8-year-old son, who had been watching in fascination,
understood my intentions and began jumping and laughing. He explained to
his father that, yes, this crazy foreigner wanted to throw away a bird worth
400 pounds.

With marvelous Arabian body language -- a cock of his head and the raising of one shoulder -- the owner asked "Why?" When I said "Christmas" with my hands pressed together, he
understood and accepted my reason immediately. Meanwhile, his son was
running in circles on the street, shouting and laughing. I was sure that
from his earliest days in the shop he had been warned against accidentally
letting a bird loose. Now, the ultimate taboo would be violated by an adult
while he watched. The boy's father put on a heavy leather glove and reached
for the falcon, which immediately lay on its back and slashed the glove with
its talons. He held the furious bird out to me, and I stroked it once on the
head and, with a pang of envy, whispered a prayer of safety and good

The shop owner took a step back and threw the bird into the air, and for a
horrible instant I thought it would crash back to the street. The falcon's
wings were stiff, and it took a few frantic beats for it to unlimber its
flight muscles. Then it was a falcon again, a wild animal instead of a
caged curiosity or a pet, and it rose from us and streaked away, a brown blur
against the gray concrete buildings of the city. In a few seconds it was
out of sight, leaving behind an empty cage, two men and one very
happy boy.

Dinner that night was dates and coffee with the owner and his son,
communicating with gestures and smiles, and feeling the satisfaction of
having cheaply purchased limitless freedom for one, and the pure happiness of
childhood for another. It was Christmas.

By Louis Casabianca

After having seen some of the world as a Navy pilot and diver, Louis Casabianca is trying to see the rest of it as a travel writer. When not on the road, he may be found writing screenplays in Los Angeles.

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