What do you think of Al Assad

News that American journalist James Foley, kidnapped in Syria, was murdered by IS rebels shocked the world this week. "You were there - what do you think of that?" A friend asked me on the phone when all the media reported about the murder. I usually don't know what to answer to such questions. This Syria, in which families starve to death, residential areas are shot at with poison gas and foreigners are beheaded, is completely alien to me.

The day I went to Syria, my mother was silent. Only later did she admit to me what had been going through her head on the way to the airport: pictures of bearded men, dark streets and her 21-year-old blonde daughter in the midst of these horrific strangers. It was an early morning in September 2009 and I left for Syria for my semester abroad.

When the plane was approaching Damascus, panic grabbed me too. I didn't know any Syrians, my knowledge of Arabic was limited to the pathetic stammering of individual words. This country and its people were terribly alien to me.

But no sooner had I arrived in Damascus than that changed. Strangers greeted me as they passed by with the words "Welcome to Syria!". Even today I think of the round face of my Syrian landlady Um Musa, who called me "futi, futi - 'schrabbi Schai!" for a cup of tea in her living room. I remember the sly smile of an old woman who assured me after going to church: "Say a word, my darling, and we will find a good-looking husband for you!"

I quickly realized: the Syrians were an underestimated and misunderstood people. George W. Bush defined them as part of the "axis of evil" and so the warm and friendly Syrians eke out an isolated existence. Only a few foreigners got lost in the branded Middle Eastern country.

Politics was only discussed in one's own apartment

The capital Damascus was an insider tip, an Arab gem. The few tourists were rarely harassed and there were hardly any souvenirs at the market stalls. In the unique old town of Damascus one could wander for hours, lose oneself in ever narrower, quietly crumbling alleys, only to suddenly reappear in the hustle and bustle of an Arab market.

I don't want to glorify this "old" Syria - even then, President Bashar al-Assad was relentlessly asserting his power. There was always a slight fear lurking beneath all the wild Middle Eastern romance. It was a feeling, a shadow, that I only noticed after months. The ubiquitous secret service had taught people to look carefully over the shoulder.

Discussions about politics and religion hardly took place outside of one's own four walls. Even more than in other Arab societies, a lot went between the lines in the Syrian one - almost everything. Glances and gestures were codes that the foreigner could hardly understand. The Syrians had withdrawn into an apolitical domesticity - until the wake-up call of the Arab Spring finally echoed through the streets of their cities.