It was when I opened The Guardian and saw a picture of a terrified woman being carried through a street in Beirut that I cried.
Her terror: The result of a car bomb in Ashrafyeh, a predominantly Christian section of Beirut, that killed five people and injured one hundred and twenty eight. All in the name of a brutal search for freedom, that has spread from Syria to Lebanon.
I take another look. Yet as I recoil from the horror, I feel lucky to have visited countries where Latin was once spoken and to have studied it in high school.
It's the '60's. Every day, as soon as he entered the classroom, my Latin teacher, Mr. Thomas, wrote Carpe diem! on the blackboard. Of course, we all thought him mad.
To girls smitten with The Beatles, Latin was stogy. But that's not the way I looked at it. Having "love" be the first word I learned to conjugate made me fearless in my lust for knowledge. So amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant seemed quite glamorous.
Carpe diem (seize the day) raised this Irish girl up to new levels with new thoughts, quite different from studying nit-picking differences between Mortal sin and Venial sin. Soon, Carpe diem became my motto.
As I took the subway back and forth to Queens, I vowed to seize the dreams of my days, before they disappeared. And I did and I have. Yet, as I watch Syria collapse into masses of stones, dust and mortar, do I even more keenly realize the importance of Carpe diem.
After writing about visiting Syria, I fanned some angry flames from those who questioned how I could visit a country ruled by a dictator. Didn't I know Syrian President Bashar al Assad oppresses citizens? I did, and it didn't matter. Didn't I know Lebanon is sympathetic towards Hezbollah? I did, and it didn't matter. What mattered is that despite everything I traveled to these countries. Carpe diem.
Walking around "old city" Damascus, Palmyra's majestic ruins way, way out in the desert and Aleppo's massive souk (UNESCO World Heritage Center) built as early as 6th millennium BC and now brutally destroyed by fire, I followed my heart and did not let politics be my guide.
A Syrian Visa requires that you list your profession. And when I put down "writer," the woman in the hijib behind the desk suggested I change it to "housewife." Pointing to 'writer' she said sternly: "Housewife is better."
This neither bothered me nor triggered fear that a freedom of mine was being curtailed. All I wanted was to see as many reminants of ancient Roman that I could. And if I had to be a housewife to do so, I'd be one.
I now trawl through Google images of carnage in Syria and Lebanon. The weather is nice. The blood is red. The sky is blue. The sky is always blue. It's 28 centigrade - a good day for swimming in the Mediterranean.
I study the bombed block of flats in Ashrafiyeh trying to read street names and wondering if I walked there. I can almost read a street sign on a sandstone building. I gaze at the elaborate chandelier in the gold jewelry section of Aleppo's souk and wonder has it been blown to bits. And in my mind, the past and present of Syria and Lebanon flow together.
As I walk on cobblestoned porticos, forums and roads, I can almost hear Latin being spoken. I wonder if the Italian restaurant that served up delicious strawberry risotto is still there. Will it be able to get strawberries, or tomatoes so sublime they could have come from the Garden of Eden? Of course, I fear for the worst: No one will visit Syria or Lebanon any time soon.
The massive Roman theatre in Bosra, built in 2nd century AD that can accommodate 9,000 people and has an off-stage vomitorium (yes, for 'vomit') is empty and forlorn. The mysterious Cities of the Dead, where I made friends with a white baby camel, is deserted, its beggars poorer. The rug stores in 'old city' are boarded up. The street named 'Straight' where St. Paul is reputed to have had his Damascene moment is dusty and littered.
And Tyre, from which Paul traveled to Damascus to experience his moment, this bolt out of the blue that profoundly, changes the way one thinks, is empty. There is no one sitting at the port, drinking wine, watching a red sun sink into the Mediterranean and thinking: "I'm off to Damascus to (maybe) have a Damascene moment."
It's a lesson to be learnt.