Hama, Syria: Finding Mohammed and True Happiness

When you think of Syria what do you think of? Whatever may come to mind, I bet it's not basketball. But basketball is exactly what Syria has become to us. Well, that and Mohammed.

We're now in Hama, a city about halfway between Aleppo in the north, where we spent our first few days in the country, and Damascus in the south. We met Mohammed on the bus coming down here from Aleppo and meeting him definitely changed our whole experience of this country. We were already having a great time, but Mohammed, a university student majoring in English, suddenly made things a whole lot more interesting for us. Not only is he a really positive, outgoing and fun guy to hang out with, and not only does he speak excellent English, but he's also a basketball player. And, as you may recall from many of our past experiences on this trip, basketball is certainly a great way to meet and befriend local people. And we not only got to eventually meet all of Mohammed's friends, we also got to meet his whole family.

A few days after first meeting us on the bus, Mohammed took us out to his hometown, Qamhanna, a very small town, or big village, about 10 to 15 kms outside of Hama. He'd been coming into town each day and hanging out with us, but then one day he said we should come out to meet his family and play a little basketball with his friends. And so the next day we headed out to Qamhanna in a taxi for one of the best days we've had on this entire trip so far.

First we had lunch together with Mohammed, his parents, 2 sisters, 2 brothers and an aunt. Mohammed's friend, Bassem, was there too. Mohammed and his 4 siblings, by the way, were all born within just 6 years. Five kids in six years! Lunch was seriously delicious and included a couple of great dishes called "fasaulia" (green beans with meat and tomatoes) and "mahshi" (eggplant stuffed with rice and minced meat). After lunch the backgammon board came out and Mohammed's dad challenged me to a couple of games.

Then at 6:00 we hopped on the back of Mohammed's Yamaha 100cc motorbike and headed off to the nearby school ground to meet a bunch of Mohammed's friends for a game of basketball in the still-quite-warm evening sun. Two hours later, after a great game, we were back at his place for a quick shower, followed by tea and fruit with his family out in their courtyard... and then, later on, chicken shwarmas (doner kebabs) for dinner up on their rooftop under the stars, with the lights of Hama shining off in the distance. What a day!

And a week later we were invited back to do it all over again. As always, it's an honor to be invited into people's homes and to see the real country, the real culture. It's certainly not something you can get to know from your hotel room. I always feel amazed at how lucky we've been on this trip.

But that was only the beginning of our Syrian basketball experience. We eventually met a guy named Majid, a coach at a kids' basketball camp right here in Hama, and every day he takes us with him to play basketball, help out with the coaching, and play with the kids - a hundred or more of them at times. Mohammed joins us there as well and we play the coaches and get our asses kicked real bad, but that's all just part of the fun, right?

Then, almost every night after basketball and dinner, we go to one of the big outdoor cafes here with Mohammed, his friend Bassem, and/or Majid and we all sit around and drink tea and play chess.

And that's basically what we do here just about every day: Basketball, chess, shwarmas, and tea, all together with Mohammed and other local friends. You gotta love life in Hama!

But there was one day that we took a break from all that. It was the rarest of days for us, an actual touristic sightseeing day. Such days never compare to hanging out with local friends, of course, but they can still be special in their own way... especially if you're into ruins. On this particular day - 9 days ago now - we went, together with this great Irish guy named Jack and this totally outgoing and fun Brazilian woman named Carla, in a hotel-organized car, with driver, on a day-trip out into the desert. We first visited an ancient church and monastery, the Saint George Monastery, originally built back in the 5th century, but largely rebuilt in the 1800s. We were then off to see a couple of castles, including the famous Crusader fortress, the Crac des Chevaliers, or Qala 'at al-Hosn in Arabic. "The greatest Crusader castle in the Middle East", according to our Lonely Planet travel guide. Or "perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world" according to T. E. Lawrence, of "Lawrence of Arabia" fame. It was quite spectacular, I must say. No basketball there though, but still a damn good day.

The highlight of our time in Syria, however - along with our two days out in Mohammed's village, of course - came about totally by chance as we ventured around the old back alleyways of Hama one day last week. We were looking for someone to ask directions from when we met this Lebanese family, a couple, their two kids and the man's mother. His mother, it must be noted, was an absolute joy. They are from Tripoli in Lebanon, but the man, Bassem, is half Syrian and they therefore have a second home in a small village a few kms outside of Hama. Well, after only a few minutes of talking and joking around with them they invited us out to their home for dinner the very next night. And, so, the following evening we found ourselves eating another massive and delicious home cooked feast, which was followed by a walk around the village, with a large pack of young kids encircling us the whole way. Before heading back to their place they took us to a friend's home where we were served tea by the 26-year-old mother of 8 or 9 kids. Yet another day of adventure, great food and incredibly friendly people. The hospitality here has just been amazing.

And Hama itself, I should mention, is quite a nice place to be too: Quiet, relatively small and very laid-back. But what makes the place particularly nice are all the beautiful giant water wheels, or norias, on the rivers throughout town.

Before I go there's one last thing I want to tell you, and that's about The Best Named Siblings In The World:

First there were the two sisters we met named Tuba and Tuna. Good, but nothing compared to The Two Brothers.

You see, at a small supermarket in Hama we got talking with the owner and during the course of our conversation he told us about his 2 brothers, who happened to be named Fucher and Saker, pronounced, to our surprise and concealed amusement, and as you probably already guessed, "Fucker" and "Sucker".


I immediately had an image of them all immigrating to, say, Canada together with their mom:


Grocery store owner and family out at the mall in Edmonton: "Hey Saker, Mother, Fucher, let's get going or we're going to be late for the movie".


Anyhow, I love it here in Hama. What a place! What great people! And what an incredible experience we've had here so far!

Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Tuesday, August 31st, 2004