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  Field Notes From
Syrian Royal Tomb

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Karen E. Lange

Syrian Royal Tomb On Assignment

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In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and Joel Robin


Syrian Royal Tomb On Assignment Author Syrian Royal Tomb On Assignment Author
Syrian Royal Tomb

Field Notes From Author
Karen E. Lange

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    As an American, I hadn't expected a warm welcome in Syria, especially at the time I visited—in late 2002, just a few months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But the people were among the friendliest and most hospitable I've ever met, whether they were putting up with my beginner's attempts at Arabic, offering hot cups of strong, sweet tea, or sharing meals that ended with arak, an alcoholic drink made from grapes grown in their own gardens.
    I also anticipated big cultural and religious differences. Instead, a number of things made me feel surprisingly at home: Many women in Syria wear Western clothing, so I didn't have to change the way I dress. Unlike in Washington, D.C., where I live, I was able to walk safely on city streets at night. And there is a large Christian community in the town of Mishrifeh. To my astonishment, half of the stationery store where I went to make photocopies had been turned into a Baba Noel  (Father Christmas) shop for the holidays. As a parting gift, the owner gave me a battery-operated Santa. When you flip the switch he plays "Jingle Bells."

    It was early winter, cold and wet. The rain turned the ground around the excavation into thick mud that clung to shoes like fresh cement. So people took off their sneakers and boots before entering the tomb and stood on the dirt floor in their stocking feet. Inside the houses the team had rented to live and work in, the warmth from kerosene heaters couldn't remove the damp chill from the air, especially in the bedrooms where people slept on mattresses on the floor. On top of that, most members of the team smoked (though, of course, not in the tomb), there weren't enough dust masks to wear a fresh one each day in the tomb, and first 12-, then 18-hour days left all of us exhausted. Nearly everybody had a cold. Soon, despite the fact that I spent most nights in a centrally heated hotel, I got one too.

    One night I left the hotel looking for an Internet café. I could speak only a few words of Arabic and could read none. Shop and street signs mystified me. After circling several blocks, I entered a public-looking building that turned out to be a hospital. In the reception area, a young doctor who spoke English offered to take me to the Internet café. We got in his car, and he asked where I was from. "The United States," I replied. All of a sudden, he became very agitated. "I just got married," he said. "I wanted to take my wife to the United States for our honeymoon, but your government refused to issue me a visa." He began to yell. "I deliver babies. Every day I hold life in my hands. But they treated me like I was a terrorist." I agreed it was terrible that the government had turned him down solely based on his nationality. I said I wished he could have visited my country. He calmed down. As we reached our destination, he gave me his phone number. "Please, if you need anything else, give me a call. My wife and I would love to have you over for dinner."


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