A bloated dead donkey greeted me as I entered Syria in January 2007. "Welcome to Assad's Syria" read a huge billboard hanging over the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey.
The first person I spoke to upon arriving in Damascus was a machine gun-toting soldier guarding a government building. "Where is the Harameih hostel?" I asked. He had no idea what I was saying, never mind what I wanted.
Mosquito and bedbug bites, sunstroke and diarrhea. Agonizing Arabic-language classes and cold showers thrice daily. Weight loss. Dust. I had no idea how I had found myself in this country. But I would stay five years, before the horrors of the country's incipient civil war drove me away this month.
There were also delights: Christian celebrations in churches so small the mellow voices in a mini-choir of two filled the entire chapel. Visiting mysterious Druze communities in remote mountain hamlets, where men drive tiny tractors filled with the green of freshly picked apples. The green, brown, and yellow mountains. Delectable meshawe -- roasted chicken soaked in olive oil and crushed garlic -- barbeques. How Damascus smells on summer nights.
Working as an editor at the state-run Syria Times newspaper in 2007 and 2008 would see me immersed in Arab literature, politics, debate, and news -- or so I thought.
I was naive. Most workers -- they cannot be called journalists -- holding senior positions at the Syria Times were Alawite. Few even spoke English. We shared offices with the Arabic title Tishreen, and most news came down from the state news agency, SANA.
Even then, dissent simmered just below the surface. Translators fresh out of university mocked the regime and the "newspaper." The tea room employed four boys where one sufficed -- brothers, sons, cousins of someone up the chain -- but loyal. Syria Times closed in June 2008, but today employees are still being paid $150 per month.
Despite its problems, Syria seemed to be prospering back then. The World Bank recorded that Syria's GDP grew at a healthy 6 percent annual clip from 2004 to 2009. An explosion of Kia and Hyundai cars clogged the streets, and new private banks provided easy credit to anyone with a little cash or a stable job.
In Damascus, at least, laptops flourished in Western-style cafes. The $4 coffee arrived in 2010, and then iPhones and Cinnabon bakeries. Syria's rapid modernization spurred massive migration to urban centers, while in the countryside to the northeast, hundreds of thousands of farmers fled starvation from a devastating drought. They drove taxis at night and lived in Harasta, Qaboun, and Madamia, satellite towns of Damascus where rent was cheap -- and that are now centers of protest.
Then the uprising began, and everything changed. In Damascus, disbelief was followed by fear and then dejection as the protests spread throughout the country. January brought a sense of siege. Hundreds of concrete barriers appeared around security and military facilities, deepening the sense of fear and foreboding. Men queued overnight for heating fuel, already inflated in price, and returned home empty-handed the following morning to cold wives and children.
In Syria's halls of power, officials made gestures toward the carrot -- "There is corruption, and we need to root it out," numerous government officials remarked in public during the early days of the revolt last spring.
At the same time, however, regime heavyweights reached enthusiastically for the stick. The calculus seemed to be that if the regime let a single town square go free anywhere in the country, it would crumble.