Monday, 22 August 2016

Syria Before the War

The Temple of Baal Shamin in 1994. It was destroyed by IS in 2015.

Last week I discovered I'd won an award at the annual Awards for Travel Writing Excellence, conducted by the Australian Society of Travel Writers.

As they were presented on Thursday evening at the ASTW's annual convention, this year held in South Africa, it was Friday morning when I heard that one of my articles had been named Best International Travel Story Under 1000 Words.

The winning story was about Syria.

For the past five years the country has been embroiled in a gruesome, heart-rending civil war war which shows no sign of abating. My article, however, was about the visit that Narrelle Harris and I made to the country in 1994, while were resident in Egypt.

Me at Palmyra, Syria in 1994.

As I explained in the article, I was prompted to write the piece last year after IS forces captured Palmyra, executed an archaeologist, and destroyed one of the ancient structures within the famous ruins there.

While writing it, I didn't want it to seem like a complaint from an entitled Western traveller about no longer being able to visit Syria's great monuments. So I made a point of including the people we met in Syria, from hospitality workers to random locals encountered on the street.

The key figure was a small boy who, to our amusement, presented us with a coin as we were looking for a vantage point over a Crusader castle. When it was published in print, the article took the title A Boy and a Coin.

Roman Theatre at Palmyra, Syria in 1994.

It was an unconventional piece of writing for a newspaper's travel section, which usually features attractive places you can visit in the here and now.

Luckily Fairfax's national travel editor Anthony Dennis saw a place for it in the Traveller section, among a series of articles featuring World Heritage sites.

I was very grateful for the opportunity to write about the connections travellers make with the people of the countries we visit, and to highlight what was happening in Syria now.

Arch of Triumph at Palmyra, Syria in 1994.

Though destinations rise and fall in popularity, they don't disappear off the map; the people we meet on our travels are still there, living their lives and trying to make the most of their opportunities. We should remember them in times of trouble.

You can read my Syria story here: A Boy and a Coin.

I you'd like to make a contribution to assist victims of the Syrian civil war, here's a link to the Save the Children Fund's Syria appeal.