Or Lattakia, or Latakkia, or whatever. I've seen each spelling, and each is a reasonable latinazation of the Greek. But what I didn't realize is that it is also Laodicea. I remember reading about that in the Bible! How about that; if I ever read the Bible again, I can say, "Hey, I was there!"
I liked Latakia. Like Damascus, it was unredeemably dirty; people chuck their trash everywhere. But it was very pleasant along the Mediterranean at night. As I walked along the beach road, there enticing smells. However I had just eaten a whole fish--that is, one that had been put before me whole, which never fails to confuse me a bit. I figured it out, though, and it was delicious.
Returning to Latakia, I was somewhat depressed at the number of women in chador and/or veils. There were far fewer in Latakia, which seems to be much more liberal. Not only were the majority of women wearing short sleeve or even sleeveless shirts, I saw several men in shorts, which I haven't seen at all in Damascus.
I was walking down the street yesterday, and a barber stepped out of his shop onto the sidewalk and called to me. Thinking it was just a comeon to get my business, I said, no, no, but then he held up what was unmistakably a can of beer wrapped in a plastic bag. So I joined him for a couple beers. Yes, I like Latakia. I ended up exchanging my fake Rolex with him--it's a gift-giving culture here, and being friendly seemed more important than keeping a fake watch. Besides, it's even better to say I have a watch that was given to me by a Syrian.
I did get a shave, though. It seems as though it's safe for an American to let a Syrian put a sharp blade to his throat.
I found out that the region around Latakia has a large proportion of Alwai (or Alewites), a somewhat obscure Muslim sect. Their doctrine is rather secretive--apparently only their religious readers get to know what's in their distinct set of writings in addition to the Quran--but from what litle is known about them, it seems to be a syncretic religion, in which the people kept many aspects of their traditional religion when they adopted Islam. Notably, they reject the idea that a mere mortal can actually live by the 5 pillars of Islam, so they believe you should just try to live a good life, as the prophet did. That may be the key to the liberalism of Latakia. It's damned hard to be fundamentalist when you don't know what the fundamentals of your faith are, and no great spiritual achievements are demanded of you.
There are a number of Christians, there, too. The hotel I stayed at had an icon of Mary with a very small but quite adult looking Jesus in her arms, and the 3-story, 24-hour internet cafe had a sign saying, "In God We Trust." Or maybe they are just announcing their fondness for American money.
Interestingly, although the Alawi are a distinct minority, President Assad is Alawi, as are most of his inner circle. That, coupled with the secularism of the Baath Party, doesn't sit well with all "real" Muslims here, which led to the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in the 1970s and '80s that was brutally suppressed by the artillery bombardment of the city of Hama.
If there really is a religious revival of sorts going on in Syria, and the leadership is from a minority sect whose Muslimness is suspect, and secular to boot, it could be bad news.
I always think of Learned Hand's comment on the spirit of liberty being that spirit which is not too sure it is right. The problem with fundamentalists is that they are too sure they're right. While democracy might be nice, continued secularism might be even more important for the future of Syria.