A Syrian Traveling in Greece for Pleasure, Not as an Exile: A Revelation

In the country that had long captured his imagination, Asser Khattab could finally explore his real passions

A Syrian Traveling in Greece for Pleasure, Not as an Exile: A Revelation
The Parthenon was built in honor of Athens’ patron goddess Athena in the fifth century BCE. (Asser Khattab)

In May 2022, I went to the Opera de Paris to see a splendid performance of Richard Strauss’ one-act opera “Elektra.” Based on a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, it tells the somber story of the quest for vengeance by the eponymous protagonist, daughter of King Agamemnon of Mycenae. 

Agamemnon led the Greek armies to victory in their 10-year war against Troy but was killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. This was in revenge for the sacrifice of another of his daughters a decade earlier, to appease the goddess Artemis, when she denied Agamemnon and his crew the wind to sail their boats to Troy. Elektra and her brother Orestes sought to avenge their father’s killing. 

It is a grim tale, certainly one that dwarfs many of our own familial imperfections, and the darkness is reflected in the scores that Strauss composed. But I was glad to have had the chance to see it, not least because I was about to fly to Greece a few days later to visit, among other places, the ancient site of Mycenae. I had already been to Greece a few months earlier, before going on to the Netherlands, Germany and several parts of France. I was planning to visit Italy just before Greece and Lebanon just after, followed by two back-to-back trips to Germany again, then one to Belgium. 

This year of magical travel was dedicated to history and art, but it symbolized so much more than simply fulfilling my passions and interests. My flight to Athens eight months before this performance of “Elektra” had been the first time in my adult life that I traveled from one country to another in pursuit of recreation rather than refuge from war and persecution — something I had been forced to seek several times in my 20s. 

For years, my true passions in life — ancient and medieval history as well as classical-to-neoclassical art — had been overshadowed by what I was doing for work, which consumed most of my waking hours and often haunted my slumber. I was reporting on the catastrophic war in Syria that, for almost 12 years now, has been tearing my home country apart.

I had grown accustomed to people I met and socialized with talking to me about genocides, sectarian conflicts, military dictatorships and religious terrorism, surmising from the nature of my work that those are the sorts of things most interesting to me. They were mistaken, and I was determined to use my newly acquired right to travel in Europe’s Schengen (visa-free) zone to bring back to life the version of me with which I’ve always been most familiar and comfortable.

It was the summer of 2021, and lockdowns in Europe were slowly being phased out. I had just received two gifts from the French government that allowed me to pursue my real interests: the Covid-19 vaccine and my Refugee Travel Document. The Prefecture of Police — located in the very center of Paris, on the small island on the Seine called Ile de la Cite, surrounded by the Gothic cathedrals of Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle as well as the medieval royal palace of La Conciergerie, where Queen Marie Antoinette was held prisoner before she was executed — had finally issued me that serviceable substitute for a passport, the only travel document available to me. As a political refugee — a status I gained from the risks I faced in Syria and Lebanon because of my work in journalism for international media outlets — I am no longer allowed to have any official ID from my country of origin, Syria, even if I wanted to. 

So, with an arm still sore from the second injection of the Covid vaccine, I booked my tickets, almost without thinking. I knew it had to be an impromptu decision, because if I had continued to mull it over I would not have dared to travel. I was terrified of the idea of traveling and all the things that could go wrong. When I lived in Syria, I would never have dreamt of getting a visa to go anywhere, because visa requests from Syrian passport-holders are almost always rejected, due to citizens’ inability to prove that they will return home after traveling. 

I spent years in Lebanon living with the fear of being caught at a checkpoint and sent back to Syria for being an undocumented refugee. When I finally made it to France, I had to show police on the street a signed paper proving that I was only going to the local supermarket, since I arrived in the country five weeks before the first day of the first lockdown.

Until the day of my flight to Greece, the mere thought that I was heading to an airport terrified me. I frantically sent messages to all my journalist friends, who often travel for work, asking them all sorts of questions: Does this count as a carry-on bag or will they charge me for it? It just looks like a suitcase although it is tiny! What should I do if my suitcase ends up being a few grams heavier than is allowed? Surely I can’t take my toothpaste and shaving gel with me? 

A fear that was harder for them to assuage was that of being denied entry to Greece or not being let out of France in the first place. “I must have got something wrong,” I kept telling myself. Carrying this little travel document and walking into an airport with an airplane ticket I had booked on my phone sounded all too easy. 

My previous experiences at airports had been few and difficult. On the day I flew out of Syria, a soldier pushed my sobbing mother away from me only five seconds into a hug, telling her that we were not allowed to spend too much time outside the check-in zone. She then waited outside with my brother, a former roommate and a taxi driver for me to come back either handcuffed for trying to leave the country after the journalism work I had done or, in the best-case scenario, dragging my suitcases behind me after a failed attempt to be allowed out of the country. 

Years later, I arrived several hours before my departure flight from Beirut International Airport, with my best friend waiting outside, ready to accompany me home if I was not allowed to leave as an illegal refugee and journalist. He was also prepared to start a Twitter storm with the rest of the lawyers, journalists and diplomats I was in contact with, if I was detained. 

While logic and facts told me that none of those past experiences would be reproduced in a Paris airport, my heartbeat was accelerating, and I kept on messaging friends after passing each stage, until I reached the gate. My anxiety about this flight reached its peak when, after checking in and passing through security, I found myself immediately in the duty-free market. How on earth did I miss passport control? I should certainly be in trouble for that, even though it seemed like the airport’s fault. I approached a security guard and asked him where passport checks were. He said that there were none, because the section I was in was for travel within the EU.

So it was all true — the whole phenomenon of free travel among Schengen countries. I knew that people were not lying about it, but to experience its ease and simplicity for the first time was still overwhelming. I now had three full hours to sit down and contemplate the brilliance of visa-free travel as I waited to board my flight. 

As I looked out of the plane’s window, down onto the Italian peninsula, I thought of the email I had just written a day earlier to an editor, suggesting I write an article about my recent decision not to be a journalist any longer. There was personal gain to be made from the article: It would publicly seal my break with the story of the war in Syria and pave the way for me to establish myself as a writer who, like any other, can harbor an interest in and an understanding of more than one topic or geographical zone. It is a curse of many journalists who come from non-Western countries and were educated in non-Western universities to be confined to working only on the regions or countries from which they hail, often in an inferior position to other colleagues. 

The significance of the fact that my first trip outside France on my new inward journey of self-discovery — and rediscovery — was to Athens, once the shining light of philosophy, was not lost on me. I still revel in shooting every hackneyed cliche about my pilgrimage to the city of wisdom at every person with whom I discuss my year of European travel.

What I had not expected, however, was that the first and most overwhelming feeling for the first three days of the trip was the realization that I miss life in a city like Beirut, Damascus or Aleppo. I admit having failed to acknowledge or understand that I missed those places — for I had mostly been concentrating on how happy I was to be free, away from the difficult times I spent in Syria and Lebanon, and being thankful to have safely escaped the worst that could have befallen me there.

To drive that point home, on my first day in sunny Athens, while walking from Hadrian’s library to the lofty Acropolis, passing between the ancient Greek and Roman Agoras, I found an empty bag of Derby — Syria’s most popular brand of potato chips and a quintessential part of the childhood of everyone in my generation. It was lying peacefully on the floor, with the inanimate object’s enviable indifference to its own foreignness. I had thought that Derby had no place in today’s world — certainly not in Greece — but I was mistaken.

When the philosophical encounter was over and the Derby bag disposed of, I redirected my gaze upward to the top of the hill that I had flown hundreds of miles to see. I had luckily arrived on the last of the European Heritage Open Days of that year, which meant that all museums and monuments were accessible and free, and I knew exactly what I wanted to see. Part of the reason why I chose to go to Athens was because I felt that I knew it. Even though going to school in Syria meant there was not as much focus on Greece and Rome in history classes as is the case in the West, I spent many hours in the library of my school in Aleppo (founded by Congregationalist and Presbyterian American missionaries in the 19th century) reading classics. I became acquainted with Greek figures such as Pericles and Alcibiades through “Plutarch’s Lives.” I delved into the history of ancient Greece by reading Thucydides and Herodotus. I became passionate about Greek mythology after reading Homer. I taught myself how to read and write the Greek alphabet and started learning as much as I could, using books and the internet, about ancient Greek.

I climbed the Acropolis hill and came within a few feet of the Parthenon, the iconic Temple of Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare. The magnificent structure built in the fifth century BCE to commemorate a Greek victory against the Persians has gone through many experiences. In the sixth century CE, it was transformed into a church. In the 15th century, it became a mosque. In 1687, during a war between the Ottomans and the Venetians, a bomb of mortar rounds from the latter warring party caused considerable damage to the temple’s structure.

In 1887, seeing the temple was still powerful enough to dissuade the aesthetically impressionable Oscar Wilde, a Protestant, from converting to Catholicism — albeit temporarily. His teacher, the Irish classicist J. P. Mahaffy, had orchestrated the trip knowing that this would be its outcome. “Under the influence of the moment,” he wrote of the experience, Wilde was converted “from Popery to Paganism.”

Today, it is hard to appreciate what remains of the Parthenon without having done one’s homework. Even gods must yield, proclaimed Lord Byron in a poem about Athens. As I stood before the formidable survivor, my eyes strove to see beyond the scaffolding and envision what was gone as well as what remains. The incomplete skeleton highlighted the absence of the stupendous chryselephantine sculpture that gave the temple its name: Athena Parthenos, or Athena the Virgin. The ivory and gold sculpture was designed by the famed Greek artist Phideas and placed inside the Parthenon, but then was lost at an unknown time.

Only part of the triangular pediments on either side of the temple remain; neither of the stories that the long-since disappeared polychrome sculptures once told still survives. It is the same for the frieze: Only fragments of the entablature that it once adorned still rest on the surviving columns to spark our imaginations, aided by artifacts that are (controversially) now held in museums around the world. 

A visit to the nearby Acropolis Museum is a helpful way to understand and appreciate the Parthenon better. Among many fascinating artifacts, one can see five of the six Caryatids — sculpted female figures that function as columns — that used to be on the porch of the Erechtheum, where six replicas can be seen today. More divisive is the collection on display in the British Museum. In the early 19th century, Lord Elgin transported the sixth Caryatid, along with an estimated half of the Parthenon’s sculptures, to England. The Acropolis Museum and Greek government are clear on the matter: Lord Elgin “looted” those artifacts, and they must be returned. On the top floor of the Acropolis museum, the complete frieze along with its accompanying sculptures is recreated using a combination of both original parts and replicas.

Still on the Acropolis, having avoided fainting from the scorching sun by drinking from a nearby well, I set out for the Areopagus (Hill of Ares). It had been referred to by one of my friends as a place “where you could have a beer around sunset.” But the Areopagus used to be much more than that. It was where the Athenian governing council used to meet. It was here that Orestes, brother of Elektra, was said to have been tried for the murder of Clytemnestra. Also on this hill, Paul the Apostle preached his famous sermon to the polytheistic Athenians, with references to their literature, temples and sculptures, as well as mentioning an altar he had seen earlier bearing the inscription “To an Unknown God,” which he used as a “hook” to his sermon. Almost every step I took on the Acropolis meant an encounter with history and myth, uniquely equal in their importance.

But Athens is not composed only of historical and mythical figures, expressed in ancient monuments. Among its most appealing features are its living inhabitants. In all of my ensuing travels, striking up conversations with strangers was key for me to begin to understand the places upon which I chanced. 

(Asser Khattab)

Unfortunately, in some conversations, I was able to see the arc of my interlocutor’s interest starting to point downward once I answered a key question: Where are you from? In one instance, a Greek restaurant owner immediately went from lively and enthusiastic to grim and uninterested. While many in Europe love nothing more than a traveler interested in their culture, doubts begin to grow when that traveler turns out to be from the wrong country. But this is by no means the case for everyone. Many people, in all of the countries where I’ve been, match quite admirably the level of interest I show in their cities with a similar interest in mine. 

After much insistence from my mother, who lives in her ancestral city of Aleppo, I finally agreed to meet her cousin, who has been living in Athens since the 1980s. Although the war and my reporting on it were the main reasons I left Syria, society was a close second. Even though my family generally shows a healthy aversion to religion, we still have conservative relatives, including the parents of this cousin my mother insisted that I meet. Hence my hesitation. 

He had given me the address of a kiosk that he owns in Thiseio, a traditional neighborhood in old Athens. I was able to recognize him easily, despite having never seen him before, due to his resemblance to many in my mother’s family.

We broke the ice by conversing about what had brought me to Athens, where I was staying and for how long. He then offered me a ride on the back of his motorcycle to his apartment by the sea. As the night progressed, I realized what a blessing it was that I managed to call this man and get to know him.

He had come to Athens illegally some 40 years ago, originally planning on moving elsewhere in Europe, a trajectory that hundreds of thousands of Syrians would collectively follow decades later. But after spending a few days in Athens, he knew it was here that he should live. He loved it, and wanted to make it his city.

As an illegal immigrant with little education and money, he could aspire to very little. He got a job at a kiosk in a tourist area — the same one where I had met him earlier that day. Over the years, he regularized his situation, became a Greek citizen, acquired that kiosk and three others — all strategically located in areas that tourists frequent — and made sure to enjoy his life.

On his balcony, where we sat after dinner to sip some pure Tsipouro, a strong distilled drink popular in Greece, he started telling me stories about his life, and how far he had come since leaving his parents’ modest home in Aleppo. Never eager to settle into a routine that took him away from the action, he had occasionally performed Syrian songs to small audiences, and once starred in an independent short film about refugees, which won him a local award. He loves poetry, and when I mentioned my admiration for the Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, C. P. Cavafy, he beautifully recited in Greek all of “Ithaka,” one of Cavafy’s loveliest poems.

My Modern Greek being nonexistent at the time, I fired back with some of the little ancient Greek I knew, reciting the first few lines of the “Odyssey,” and a favorite excerpt from Book III of the “Iliad,” in which the Trojan prince Hector gives Paris a dressing down for having cowered from a one-on-one match with the Achaean Menelaus: Δύσπαρι εἶδος ἄριστε γυναιμανὲς ἠπεροπευτὰ / αἴθ᾽ ὄφελες ἄγονός τ᾽ ἔμεναι ἄγαμός τ᾽ ἀπολέσθαι (“Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed”).

The Acropolis was not the only hill I was planning to spend time on during my visit to Athens. Despite the scorching sun, I began every day of that trip by having a spanakopita — an exceptionally good spinach and feta cheese pie — with coffee in the morning, then walking up the Lycabettus Hill. Climbing its 277 meters justified the eating of the spanakopitas. The hill comprises the left-wing neighborhood of Exarcheia, which reminds me of where I used to live in Beirut, and the more expensive and tidy Kolonaki. There was also the Filopappou Hill, where famous orators like Demosthenes and Pericles delivered unforgettable speeches. 

It was not the only time in Athens that I felt I was back in the Middle East. Pangrati is one of several neighborhoods of Athens that I think of as posing as Damascus, due to its clumsy urban planning and piles of concrete buildings littered with canopy-covered balconies. 

My bond with Athens was growing with every spanakopita; every museum I visited; and every statue I stumbled across, especially one where Greece, personified as a woman, puts a crown on the head of Lord Byron. Known to the Greeks as Lordos Vironas, the Romantic poet is revered there for his devotion to the country and his role in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans, a war in which he died. I also visited the statue of the mythical king Theseus, who slaughtered the Minotaur and performed extraordinary tasks before being exiled by the Athenians toward the end of his life; as well as that of Pericles, ruler of Athens in the fifth century BCE, who delivered eloquent speeches that were retold by Thucydides, and failed (like many of today’s leaders) at managing an epidemic.

I did not want that first trip to Greece to ever end. But I knew I would be coming back soon. In the eight months that came between that visit and my second, I took Modern Greek lessons online, albeit with frequent interruptions due to my (by then) unstoppable traveling.

I had already become a much happier and more relaxed person by the time I landed back in Athens in May 2022. My break with journalism, especially with the Syria story, had been cemented. The article that I pitched had been published in New Lines and well received, sparking a healthy conversation about structural flaws in journalism, especially for reporters from less fortunate backgrounds than others.

Knowing that this trip to Greece was to be followed immediately by my first trip back to Lebanon since leaving, my journey this time was purely for and about Greece, relieved from its additional role of reminding me of the inaccessible place I call home.

After a few days with a friend who had just moved to Athens, during which I revisited all my favorite museums, monuments and restaurants, my friend rented a car and the three of us, counting his dog, made for the Peloponnese.

We began in Nemea, a region famous for its red wine. Some believe that winemakers there have been relying on the same grape variety, Agiorgitiko, for three millennia. 

I had not known about Nemean wine before setting out to visit the region, but I had been excited to see it because of the place it occupies in Greek mythology. It was here that Heracles performed the first of his famous 12 labors: slaying the Nemean lion. Having completed this task, he commemorated his victory by founding the Nemean Games, one of the four panhellenic games of ancient Greece. You can still see the stadium by the ruins of the old Temple of Zeus, to whom the games were dedicated. 

Lunch was at Nafplio, which I enjoyed rather less than other stops we made that day. I could not help but think that much of the city’s face today is covered with what tourists want to see, with backdrops for Instagram posts at every corner. We still managed to get some good fried feta with honey alongside the obligatory Greek salad before having some meat. 

As we drove out of Nafplio in the direction of Argos, the kingdom of the Achaean hero Menelaus, we passed by the remains of what Homer described as the “mighty walled Tiryns,” which in Greek mythology was where Heracles resided while he performed his labors. We did not have much time to stop in Argos, so we only glanced at the Roman baths, the ancient agora and theater, on our way to Mycenae, the kingdom of Agamemnon. 

Mycenae was my big prize of the day: a dream come true. One of the most important archaeological sites in the Peloponnese, Mycenae was described by Homer as a well-built city, with broad streets, and rich with gold. I was profoundly moved when I gazed upon its Lion Gate, the entrance to the ancient citadel of Mycenae, which was built around 1250 BCE, and boasts a relief sculpture of two lionesses. Entering the gate, I liked to think that it was in the empty and peaceful space where I stood that Elektra spent her time, grieving for her father and thinking her brother Orestes dead, until he showed up at the end of the opera and gave her a rush of hope. I also visited the empty “beehive” tomb of Clytemnestra, the mother on whom her two children executed their revenge. 

At the curatorially confusing National Archaeological Museum of Athens (a place I must include on each of my pilgrimages to the City of Wisdom in the future), one can see the exceptional treasures found by the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and his successors in the graves of Mycenae, including the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, a gold death mask thought by Schliemann to depict the face of the king. “We still call it the Mask of Agamemnon, even though we now know that it isn’t, because that’s good advertisement for the museum,” I once overheard a tour guide say. Schliemann’s obsession with the Greek classics led him to inflict much damage on many archaeological sites by using dynamite and other hasty and destructive methods, but he remains celebrated for the discoveries he made. He is buried in a mausoleum of his own design at the first cemetery of Athens.

Back at Mycenae, I persuaded my long-suffering companion to make one last stop before we headed back to Athens, to see the ancient site of Corinth, a city I knew not so much from mythology as from the Bible. The sun was ready to set by the time we made it to the city, and the archaeological site had already been closed for the day, but much of it could be seen from the exterior, including a rather sublime Temple of Apollo. “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate,” Paul the Apostle had written to the people of Corinth in ancient times. But we saw none of that. Aside from a few elderly locals having coffee on plastic chairs at the side of the road and a dog that kept following us around, stillness dominated the ancient site, which today is outside the modern city of Corinth. 

On the day I was to leave Greece, as I struggled to carry my suitcase rather than drag it behind me and awaken everybody before my dawn journey to the airport, I thought of how lucky I had been to succeed in sealing my break with my old life, without forgetting about it. I had acquired much freedom, and in that I found much happiness. Professionally, I was no longer confined to writing about the same theme and place over and over again if I did not want to. More important, I had also gained freedom of movement. The shackles of my Syrian passport finally broken, I was able to travel to European and other countries without having to worry about it, which I am still getting used to. 

I thought of C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka,” to which I had grown more attached after hearing my relative recite it in the original:

“Don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way.” The prospect of that wealth has given me reins and spurs to find my true passions on the road. I don’t intend to stop if I can help it.

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