From my travel book on Syria: My Home is Your Home.
I’m fifty miles along a desert track to nowhere, halfway between al Raqqa and Deir ez Zour. The falling darkness is making me uneasy. I need to find shelter for the night. Getting off the bike, I push it through the mud, up out of the gully and over the brow of the hill. There, in the middle of the track, are a couple of small children dropping stones in a puddle to create a splash. Their clothes are ragged and ill-fitting, their hair unkempt, their faces dirty. They stop and I stop and we all stare at each other in silence. Then along the track comes a man, old, lean-bodied and upright, wielding a stick which he uses to chase the children away.
We exchange greetings and I will him to keep talking to me until I’ve established some sort of rapport. He does and as we talk, a young and very beautiful woman joins us. She is tall and straight-backed with dark shiney hair pulled back and partly concealed by a black scarf, which is wound round her head, Bedouin style. She wears a long black tunic pulled in at the waist by a leather belt with a brass buckle. And as she comes towards us, I see that she has the walk of a queen.
She has no English and I later discover that she can neither read nor write but we converse with ease and, as we do so, I will her to ask me to have tea. Which she does, inviting me into a sort of walled compound consisting of a one-storied flat-roofed house, a few outhouses and a yard with a lorry parked in it.
The old man – her father-in-law – drifts away now that we have engaged in women’s talk and gradually, as in a play, characters start to enter stage left and stage right: a woman here,a young girl there, a man after her, another man.
My bike is taken away and put safely by a shed. The yard fills with more ragged children come to stare and so many of them are there that the old man returns with a raised shovel threatening to hit them. But they’ve heard his ranting before and merely move out of range.
Then an old woman advances across the yard and the children scatter. She is wizened, bent, faded henna decorations on her face and hands – and clearly the matriarch. We nod and smile at each other and soon the whole family is there, lined up, eight or ten of them. All smiling expectantly. And it is then, il hamdhu lillah, that the old woman invites me to stay the night.