The year was 1970 and we were living in Damascus, Syria, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
My husband, a Canadian Naval Officer, had been appointed to the United Nations as an UNMO, a United Nations Military Observer. His job was to report and observe violations of the cease-fire between Israel and its Arab neighbours. “Cooking and looking,” he called it.
Four days a week he and a UNMO of another nationality travelled to one of the observation posts where they worked and lived in a trailer on the Golan Heights - No Man’s Land. When my husband returned from his tour of duty, our family would be together again for two or three days. In the meantime, the children and I lived comfortably in our apartment in the city.
There were definitely dangerous times during our stay in Syria: a military coup, a cholera epidemic and the uprising after Nassar’s death. But we were well protected under the umbrella of the United Nations and encountered few serious problems. After one plane hijacking we were prepared to evacuate to Cyprus; however, this was eventually cancelled.
The sights and sounds of the ancient city of Damascus were ours to explore. The children and I shopped the colourful Souq al Hamidiyeh, mingling with families dressed in delicate muslin veils, hijabs and checked keffiyehs. One afternoon an Arab friend took us to the Street Called Straight, mentioned in the New Testament in connection with St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity and believed to be the oldest street in the world. While there we visited the Omayed Mosque and the Chapel of St. Paul nearby, said to be the spot where St. Paul fled by being dropped in a basket through a window.
Most days we stopped by a bakery along Abou Roumaneh in the modern section of Damascus, for a treat on our way home. Finding our way around the city proved exciting. We looked forward to each new day. Especially the December day we drove to Beirut, Lebanon to pick up our new camper.
Mountains with snow-capped peaks loomed before us as our family of five packed into a UN Wagoneer and drove the 127 kilometres through several military checkpoints and along the narrow roads of the Bakka Valley to Beirut. Treasures from around the world were bartered, bought and sold in the cosmopolitan Mediterranean city of Beirut, often called the Paris of the Middle East. We arrived at noon on a Friday, dropped the UN vehicle off at headquarters and took a taxi to the dealership. But to our dismay, the manager refused to accept our cheque.
“I gave you a cheque as a deposit when you ordered the camper,” my husband said. “You accepted it a few weeks ago - with no problem.”
“Aha, but we didn’t have to give you anything, did we?”
All the banks were closed because of the holy day. We couldn’t believe what was happening. We then visited Ousteyan, the money-changer on the street-corner who had been referred to us by his cousin, Ousteyan, a goldsmith friend of ours in Damascus.
“Why you worry?” he said. “I help you.”
In his kiosk, about the size of a telephone booth, Ousteyan passed out treats to the children, cashed our cheque and handed over 11000 Lebanese Pounds in a brown paper bag.
“Shukran, thank you,” we chimed.
“Afwan, welcome,” smiled Ousteyan.
When my husband plunked the money down on the dealer’s desk he must have thought we’d robbed a bank. The children laughed as we climbed into our new camper with its pop up roof, table, fridge and fold down bed. We then headed home to Damascus.
Thirty-five kilometres outside Beirut, the weather changed. Snow and high winds blocked the roads and we were forced to turn around. All the hotels were filled. ‘No Vacancy’ signs everywhere. We drove to The Charles Hotel, where we’d stayed many times previously and after a short time, the owner provided us with a large suite. We later learned his mother had vacated her apartment to accommodate us.
The next morning the weather cleared, but the pass remained closed. The police advised us to go south, down and around the mountains. A bus and two Syrian taxis were taking the same route, so in our new camper we joined their convoy. This journey took us on a treacherous, winding road through the village of Marj Uyan, deep into Fedayeen territory.
As head-lights shone over the deep ravines below, I feared for our lives and prayed many prayers. And as I watched our three little ones - so full of softness and ease - sleeping in the back seat, I thought of our families back home in Canada and silently asked for their guidance. “What would you do under such circumstances dear loved ones? Please send us an army of angels to dispel these terrible fears.”
“Mar haba, keef halek” suddenly echoed the voices of three keffiyehclad men who had plowed through the snow - to say hello and to check on our children. Framed by the camper’s windows, their wrinkled faces looked kind - and deeply familiar. They appeared concerned, especially for the safety of the children. And as my husband chatted with them, I remember relaxing and breathing slower and easier. At that moment I think we both experienced a sense of peacefulness within the shared space of our camper.
Exhausted, we reached Damascus in twelve hours, a trip that normally took two. After inhaling the city’s sweetness, we whispered a thank you to the band of angels who had travelled with us, and then we carried our three little ones up the 75 steps to our apartment.
In our young lives, so many years ago, my husband and I discovered a rare truth, a sense of hope that continues to nourish us to this day: Sweet joy sometimes treads out of the darkest night, bringing strength to the most frightening part of our lives. All we have to do is let it inside.
Our camper provided comfort, security and shelter wherever we ventured after that day. We left the Middle East in 1972 and spent two months travelling through Turkey, Yugoslavia, Europe and England. The camper’s closeness helped us grow and learn from one another. Its versatility gave us the gift of precious moments to take home to Canada: cooking octopus beside the Aegean Sea, walking the cobblestone streets of Dubrovnik, camping in the mountains of Switzerland, climbing towers in London and sailing home on the SS France.
We all shed tears in 1980 when we sold the camper. The hammock bed over the front seats was a foot too short for our eleven year old son. And the double bed we had installed in Germany to fit into the pop-up roof was much too small for two teenage girls. Our old faithful guardian angel on wheels - had served us well.