Breakdown on the Road to Damascus:
One Indelible Memory of Syria
by Patricia Ann Liske
We were returning to our post at Embassy Amman from a weekend excursion to Damascus in June, 1995, and I was riding in the middle car of our three-car caravan. My husband was in the lead car; he knew the road, and the mandatory routine of crossing the Syrian-Jordanian border. We had a map from the Embassy illustrating the multiple offices, and the order in which each must be visited. I was in the car with a family that had just arrived In Amman, in case they got separated from the other two cars in the maze of trucks that always lined the road between Damascus and the border. It was dusk as we left “The Nunnery”, the convent established on the spot where St. Paul's conversion threw him off his horse, and where Embassy families often stayed when visiting Damascus. We had gone only about 15 miles beyond the city limits when our car began to slow down and make a strange sound. The driver was able to safely guide the car off to the side of the road. Luckily. we were still directly in front of another US Embassy car, which pulled over with us. However, the lead car did not see what happened, because several trucks had moved in between our two cars and theirs.
After much discussion, we decided to send the good car — along with the driver of our car — back to find help at a gas station just outside of Damascus. I stayed with the family in the disabled car. After about a half an hour the car returned with a mechanic, who with a wrench and pair of pliers, diagnosed the problem as, "the clutch has died". Needless to say, he could not fix it there by the side of the road. The car needed to be towed back to the station, but the truck he came in was not big enough. So he had to return to the service station and come back with a larger truck, which would take at least another half hour. By now my husband, who noticed that none of the other cars were following his, had stopped and was waiting anxiously, concern growing with every minute.
There was another lively discussion about what to do. To simply leave the disabled car was not an option; there were eight of us left with small sedan that could comfortably seat only four. We finally reluctantly agreed to leave the family of three and their car at the gas station. We pooled all of the money we had and gave it to them for car repairs, hotel, food, taxi fare, and whatever else they may need along with a card in both Arabic and English with directions back to “The Nunnery”.
By the time the remaining five of us squeezed into the four-seat sedan to continue our return home to Amman, almost two hours had passed. By now, my husband and the other teachers in our car were certain that we had been in an accident. In the middle of the desert, without cell phones, here was nothing to do but to send one person back to look for the two missing cars. Just as they had flagged down a truck to take someone back, we appeared, and seeing their car off to the side of the road we became worried that they too had encountered car trouble, or had been involved in an accident.
After both groups had recounted the drama of the last few hours, our two-car caravan proceeded through the labyrinth of trucks, and on through the tedious border crossing, and finally home to Amman with much concern for the family left behind. Morning came and still there was no word from our stranded friends. My husband had reported the incident to the Embassy, and we waited anxiously as each hours passed. Finally in the late afternoon the family arrived in Amman, all smiles and bubbling with excitement. As soon as we had left them at the gas station, the mechanic delivered the not surprising news that a new clutch could not be found until morning. When they inquired about a taxi to return to “The Nunnery” the mechanic insisted that they stay at his home. His family owned the gas station and lived in a modest, but substantial, home nearby. The mechanic moved out family members to make two bedrooms available for the son and the parents, while his wife prepared a late supper, and then had breakfast ready when they awoke in the morning.
A new clutch was in deed found and installed by noon, but the Syrian family insisted that their American guests stay for a mid-day meal, which turned into a celebration. When they left, not only had their car been repaired, but they had also been treated to the unforgettable experience of genuine Arab hospitality. So even as we worried about them, they were having the adventure of a lifetime making friends with a Syrian family.
In the years since, I have often wondered what would happen to a Syrian family traveling somewhere in the US, who experienced car trouble but did not speak much English. I sure like to think that we would — in turn — take them in and care for them, and not leave them stranded by the side of the road.