The stories of a couchsurfer

Zeid, Avignon


If you’ve read this blog even just a few times you should have come to the realization that one of the reasons I enjoy Couchsurfing so much is it’s ability to provide an extra insight into the city that one is in via the intimate local knowledge of the host.

This has been verified on numerous occasions so far during my journey. Then there are other times, where the host not only provides an insight into the city you are Couchsurfing in, but also of a different part of the world.

My Couchsurfing time in Avignon provided me with such an example. While browsing through profiles for potential hosts I came across Zeid, a young Syrian that was studying and living in France. Besides appearing to be a great guy, one thing in particular attracted me to Zeid’s profile and that was his eagerness to talk about his home country of Syria, particularly the political aspects of it.

Keep in mind that I was surfing in mid July of 2013, in the midst of a horrendously complex situation in Syria that has only worsened since then to the time I am writing this. Naturally, I was very interested to learn about the country and what was currently happening.

Zeid met me at the train station upon my arrival and immediately helped out by providing me access to one of Avignon’s hire bikes that he had a yearly subscription to. Together, we rode along the old city wall to his place conveniently located only a five minute walk from the inner city. I didn’t want to dive straight into the situation and in any case I wanted to lean more about him as a person and so we talked about our respective travels, ambitions and opinions on life.

These are generally pretty standard conversations between Couchsurfers and I often get questioned if I get sick of asking and answering the same questions every time I meet a new Couchsurfer – whether hosting or surfing.

The response is of course no, as the answer to the question always changes depending on the person to who I’ve asked the question. This is the great advantage to meeting people, particularly from a variety of different cultures, backgrounds and upbringings as their answers to certain questions may be different to yours due to a different perspective. You don’t have to agree with the opinion, but it’s at least important to acknowledge and consider it.

I was Couchsurfing with Zeid during the Festival d’Avignon and he told me that prior to hosting myself he hosted a young Bulgarian girl who was performing at the festival. He had plans to catch up with her that night and watch a show and invited me along and I agreed.

Still afternoon, we ventured into town to grab a bite to eat. Zeid introduced me to tartine, a large, flat, toasted piece of bread covered with the topping of your choice. Essentially, I viewed it as a large bruschetta with different toppings. The activity in the square was certainly lively with various artists taking the opportunity to advertise their shows for that night.

It was here that we had the opportunity to talk about Syria. Zeid left Syria about two years earlier for study purposes while his family remained in Syria. Zeid was well informed about the political state in Syria as it was actually his topic for the thesis that he was writing for his studies. Just like listening to Olga‘s opinions on the state of Catalonia within Spain, I couldn’t really debate any of Zeid’s points as I had no real prior knowledge, but only listen and ask questions if something seemed amiss.

Many people are confused by the events in Syria, and can’t determine which side is doing right and which side is doing wrong as there have been so many conflicting reports. If my understanding of the conversation held with Zeid is correct, he sees it a lot clearer. To him, there are primarily two sides; the Syrian government and the Syrian rebels and to Zeid the government was corrupt, selfish and evil. When peaceful protests broke out in Syria against the regime, the government attempted to quash them using violence and the civil war commenced.

Here’s where it starts to get slightly more complicated, and I take great caution not to incorrectly document any of the conversation, so don’t exactly quote me on the following.

The Syrian government supports (or follows, whichever you wish) a particular form of Islam – Alawites. As always, religion is complex but this form is not identical but closely related to the form supported by Iran and so it was in Iran’s best interests to keep the current regime in power. As such, they supplied weapons and infantry to support the government’s army.

On the other side of the coin were the Syrian rebels, who were fighting not for religious reasons but against the tyranny of the government. Now here’s the part I can’t exactly recollect with precision. The majority of Syria is another form of Islam – Sunni Islam, and so that puts the government in the minority, religiously speaking (all the more reason for Iran to support it, I guess). Saudi Arabia comes in to aid the Syrian rebels because they primarily follow Sunni Islam also.

With the assistance of Saudi Arabia, the rebels manage to progress and make good progress but then, for a reason that rue not remembering, the Saudis pull out, and leave the rebels to continue the fight on their own. The regime takes advantage of this and pounces, pushing them back quickly.

I asked Zeid if his family was alright and if they had fled. He said they were, and that they could still communicate easy and on a regular basis. He said that they chose to remain in Syria as the area that they live in hadn’t directly been affected, but the fighting was getting closer and soon they would have to make a decision.

It was a sobering thought and realisation. There we were, enjoying the finest tartine with laughter and extravagant celebrations surrounding us when a few thousand kilometers across the world people are considering giving up their lives in order to protect themselves. Remarkably, Zeid didn’t seem too phased about the whole ordeal and never outwardly showed any signs of stress or serious concern during my time there. Ultimately, he knew more about it than me and perhaps the fact that he was comfortable enough to still enjoy the festival with a couple of Couchsurfers is a sign of just how safe his family currently was.

Eventually we met the aforementioned festival artist. She played an instrument called the Hang – a large, domed, metallic instrument that resembles a UFO and sits in the players lap while they tap it at different regions to produce different tones. It may sound like a pretty primitive instrument but in the right hands it can orchestrate some pretty harmonious and soothing melodies. The girl was quite a talented player and it surprised me to find while I talked to her that she was completely self taught. Her job? Why, traveling around Europe following festivals, playing the hang and selling CD’s of course, and she seemed to make quite enough money off it too.

At festivals like the Festival d’Avignon and it’s contemporary, the Festival Off, there forms communities of things such as hang players and as such she had met some fellow players who had invited her to a concert that night. Some sort of hang maestro playing in an old church. Zeid and I followed, as this was a free concert. No doubt that the man was talented, and the high ceilings of the stone church provided remarkable acoustics for such a session, but the entire time I was more focused on the architecture and beauty of the old church, almost hidden, squeezed amongst the other stone buildings in the street.

Later on during my stay I had a chance to play a hang myself and it gave me a newfound appreciation of the players that I had listened to previously. It requires meticulous precision at where exactly you hit it and with which part of the finger to produce a note with clarity.

My time in Avignon taught me many things. How to play the hang. A performers life in a festival environment. The history of the papacy. Most importantly and perhaps most surprisingly, Avignon taught me about Syria. Thanks to Couchsurfing and Zeid.

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